This is the sort of story that the Olympics die for. Charismatic individual performs admirably for years, gets to the top of his or her game, suffers a catastrophic setback, is bedridden for years, but by sheer force of determination and will, rehabs to go for the gold. In this case, though, we’re talking a gold record, and the man in question is Robert Harrison.
For nine years, Harrison was the leader of Austin’s garage-rocking Cotton Mather, underground favorites who were consistently on the verge of breaking before disbanding in 2003. Then, after they split, Harrison experienced a debilitating spine injury that kept him in bed for two years. While he was recuperating, he was unable to play guitar — the instrument was just too big — but his five-year-old daughter gave him a birthday present to brighten his spirits: a ukulele. Besides being a thoughtful gesture by a concerned girl, it was the perfect thing for Harrison. The uke proved to be incredibly inspirational, and songs began to flow. A lot of songs.
“I became a narrator and protagonist of sorts,” Harrison has said, “whisking about from scene to scene like Ebenezer Scrooge at the behest of his spirit guides. Many of the songs were written in meditations or altered states — and others I don’t recall writing at all, but they appeared to me as part of this bizarre ‘guided’ dream sequence.”
Fast forward and the hopeful theme of the Olympics starts playing. Eventually, Harrison is able to stand on his feet again, and when he does, he has enough material for a debut record to launch his new band, Future Clouds and Radar. In fact, enough to make that debut a double album.
Double discs, of course, are rare in the i-Pod era outside of classic rock reissues and Wu Tang Clan. If the album is dead, as many heralds are crying, and if everyone just wants singles, why issue twice as much record? On top of that are the twin terrors of double-albums — self-indulgence and lack of ideas. It takes some serious stones to put one of these babies out, especially as a debut.
Harrison certainly recognized this. “It seems like lots of double discs are one solid record followed by a disc of scraps,” he says in the press material for the record. “I wanted the music to ascend for 90 minutes and actually present a record two every bit as strong or stronger than record one.”
On that score, he succeeded. Much of the best material on Future Clouds and Radar’s self-titled debut landed on Disc 2. “Christmas Day 1923”, for instance, is a beautiful weeper that sounds like an American Pogues. Or “Build Havana”, which has sweet mellotron and chimey guitar; and “Dr. No”, a pastiche of ’60s pop with fine harmonies. “Back Seat Silver Jet Sighter'” is a great lost GBV tune. Future Clouds and Radar takes a kaleidoscopic look at pop music of the past four decades: Robert Pollard, Flaming Lips, Robyn Hitchcock, John Lennon, World Party, 13th Floor Elevators, and the Kinks are all in here to some degree, and you see which way they’re mostly treading, towards psychedelic, poppy, yet classic, rock. There’s more wandering and exploring over the course of Future Clouds and Radar than even this suggests. On the first half dozen songs, you can hear disco, reggae rhythms, short and sharp Elvis Costello-esque pop, a Beatlesque anthem, and modern radio fodder. It skips through so many genres that it’s dizzying.
And it’s schizophrenic to a fault. There is enough good stuff in here for one excellent record. And even enough for more than one record. Just not quite two. There are a good half-dozen scraps — the bluesy “Devil No More”, “Cowboy Weather” — or just wankery dogs like “Wake Up and Live” that go on four minutes too long. And you wish Harrison could tell between the two, because the transcendent moments — “Green Mountain Clover”, “Build Havana”, “Altitude”, “Christmas Day 1923”, “Wake” — make you glad you have ears. He’d do well to pick a couple of styles — his Beatlesque power pop sides perhaps — and stick with them. Focus.
And the Olympic story of Future Clouds and Radar continues. When Harrison and his cohorts were readying to play their New York debut in support of the new record, the songwriter received a call from his wife. She wanted him to know that she and the kids were okay despite the evacuation. Seems their house outside Austin was in the path of an out-of-control brushfire.
Hopefully Harrison will find inspiration in that, too.