Evan Sawdey gives his personal take on the familiar tale of first musical love, explaining how stumbling across the work of under-the-radar musician J.Ralph opened up new doors into a consciousness of music's capabilities.
Sometimes in life, you have to champion a cause.
At work, you might champion a change to the break room that everyone will eventually thank you for. A newspaper reporter might champion a local community story that just might have an impact when read by a wider audience. And when you're a music journalist, you sometimes have to champion a little-known recording artist whose music is just too good to be ignored by the mainstream.
J.Ralph is my cause, largely because he changed my life.
As a young teen, I wasn't that much into music. Oh sure, I heard songs on the radio, but way back in the day -- years before my parents got cable -- my musical awakening happened because of The Box. It was a small-time call-and-request music video network. It was always covered with a nice little layer of TV snow, but that didn't prevent me from taping videos off the TV with our VCR, reveling in the sheer excess of the rock video. Sure, there were a couple of days when Eminem's "My Name Is" was played about twice every half-hour, but sometimes a golden nugget shone through, and you got to hear a song that absolutely blew your mind. Beth Orton's "Stolen Car" was one of these songs. The Smashing Pumpkins' "Ava Adore" (the first Pumpkins song I ever heard) was another. Yet nothing would change my views on pop culture more than "Baby", a video by a little-known artist named Spy. It was like a miniature crime-movie set to a pop song, all helmed by a wide-eyed NYU film grad named Joshua Ralph. Spy was his band. 1999's Music to Mauzner By was his debut album. The day I purchased it, things would never the same again.
Being a product of '90s alt-rock, the first few albums I bought were staggeringly eclectic yet completely mainstream: Everclear's So Much for the Afterglow, the Barenaked Ladies' Stunt, and even Garth Brooks' infamous Chris Gaines experiment (and the less said about Real McCoy's Another Night, the better). Spy's Music to Mauzner By was, as far as I can tell, only the 8th album I purchased in my life. Unlike the pop and rock albums that I had heard prior, nothing could have possibly prepared me for the madcap eclecticism that ran rampant all over J.Ralph's debut.
Music to Mauzner By
To the nines, I don't combine
The cologne sharks and the tattooed minds
A-greeny-reeny-roo, doing what he could
The spunk is always greener but the spunk is never good
In a hypnologic state you'll find
Care seat jackets on a hollow spine
All the lies I told I brought
The cup was full when the check was dropped
-- J.Ralph, "Baby"
As Music to Mauzner By progresses, your expectations are raised from track to track. Often filled with catchy beatnik-styled lyrics, Ralph could surprise with the occasional heart-breaking ballad, as on the joyous-yet-haunting "Leave Me Alone" and the mournful gospel send-up "Stay Away". Ralph gave me my first-ever lesson on song structure with his epic spy-instrumental "The Desert Suit Conspiracy", in which the track is divided into four different moody instrumental mini-suites that are layered over each other and just so happen to sync up with jaw-dropping precision. Yet no one could ever have predicted an ending as grand or epic as "Untitled 17", a full-on orchestral score to a movie that no one could see. Recorded with the New York Philharmonic (under the direction of noted film composer Carter Burwell), "Untitled 17" is a short four-minute composition that just might move you to tears, sounding totally familiar and completely new at the same time. It reminds you of great silver screen kisses that happen right before the credits roll, tugging on the heartstrings of everyone in the movie theater. It's cathartic, sweet, beautiful, and utterly haunting. All the more amazing when you learn that J.Ralph still doesn't know how to read music.
While I fell madly in love with every note on Music to Mauzner By, I was equally enthralled by the mythology surrounding J.Ralph. Upon graduating NYU, he wound up renting an abandoned silent-movie house in New York City, filling it to the brim with instruments and fellow musicians. His journey into the pop world is entirely insular yet completely accessible, indulging his ego without once ever coming across as egotistical. The only thing more cryptic than his lyrics was his website, which featured mostly-fake background information and quotes from things that didn't exist:
"Invisibility is key. You cannot shoot, what you cannot see
Thus, the subject remains unseen."
-- J.L. Smilovic Corpicus Ipsus; Gray Matter Lightning, 1918
"Life imitates T-shirts in a blue room with television colored walls."
-- Bub Jess, Producers Are Hell, 2001
Unfortunately, it would be awhile before we would hear from J.Ralph again. Mauzner flopped, selling only 7000 copies domestically. He was soon dropped from Lava/Atlantic, but not before they gave him one more shot. You see, Ralph had composed this glorious instrumental called "One Million Miles Away" sometime after Mauzner's release, and Volkswagen, hearing the potential in the song, used it on a small little ad that just happened to run during the Super Bowl:
Encouraged by the response, Mauzner was temporarily re-released with "One Million Miles Away" tacked on to the beginning (something that wasn't reflected on the actual track listing printed on the back -- so much for rushing), but it did little to help J.Ralph's sales. However, it did fire up his muse all over again. Ralph soon transplanted himself to Prague to work on an all-classical album, all the while retaining his down-to-earth pop sensibilities. The Illusionary Movements of Geraldine & Nazu was initially an iTunes-only release, but soon Barnes & Noble picked it up, touting him as the next big thing and releasing it only through their store. Once again, the songs were absolutely stunning, and once again, Ralph was relegated to mere footnote status.
Dvorak Hall in Prague
So is Ralph doomed to be cast as a David against a music marketing Goliath? Unfortunately, he may be. As far as history is concerned, Ralph is following the same path as Badfinger, the Beatles' pet group who made great music but got caught in a series of bad circumstances. Fortunately, Ralph is still young, and he's got his whole life ahead of him. On his website (www.jralph.com), he streams not only all of his albums, but also all of his unreleased albums, including his abandoned follow-up pop set (Frame the Horse) and his various film soundtrack work and collaborations (including, most inexplicably, a duet with Val Kilmer). So amazed I am by the quality and consistency of his career that I've gone as far as to record his gorgeous ballad "Lil Ol' Me" through crappy computer speakers and share it on various mix CDs for friends. Yes, I'm that obsessed.
Yet I'm obsessed for good reason. In the hundreds upon hundreds of albums that I have bought, listened to, and reviewed since J.Ralph's debut, very few have matched the wide-eyed eclecticism that Music to Mauzner By offered. As a matter of fact, it should be no surprise that in my not-so-humble opinion, the only disc that comes close to matching Ralph's widescreen pop mastery is the Avalanches' sprawling debut album, Since I Left You. Yet I wouldn't be able to appreciate that album were it not for Music to Mauzner By. I'm not sure if I would have the same skewed view on the realm of pop music were it not for the possibilities that Mauzner offered before me, lovingly dressed up in colors that can only be seen by a true musical madman.
Eight years after my first listen, Music to Mauzner By sounds as fresh, modern, and surprising as ever. When I look back on how my views of music have evolved, I look back at Mauzner and think "Wow, it truly did change my life." No wonder it's the first thing that comes to my lips whenever someone asks me "What's your favorite album?" Eight years from now, I doubt that the answer is going to change.