Graig Markel: Tall Tales on Tape

Emily Sogn

Graig Markel

Tall Tales on Tape

Label: Sonic Boom Recordings
US Release Date: 2004-04-06
UK Release Date: Available as import

Leaving a position as the primary crooner of a rock band to pursue a solo career as a "singer-songwriter" is a tricky business that only a privileged few can pull off with finesse. If you front a good band that has achieved even moderate success, its a tempting thing to do, especially if you are the kind of individualistic multi-tasker that likes to have a hand in every single aspect of a making a record. And what musician who has even an ounce of self-confidence (and the better part of them have a few gallons at least) hasn't thought that they could achieve even greater heights if they could skip the whole collaboration thing and call all the shots when songwriting? But what most musicians don't realize is that although many bands do very well to have a prolific singer that has enough charisma and skill to shoulder the responsibility of being the band's most visible member, these same qualities can easily be transformed into liabilities without the rest of the band to temper them. Sometimes this problem is purely a matter of ego. The same cool assuredness that makes Mr. or Ms. Frontperson so captivating in front of a band can appear cloying and cocky when flying solo. Such a phenomenon can be seen when looking at the career of Ryan Adams for example, who went from being an endearingly depressed country kid in Whiskeytown to an irritatingly depressed pop panderer once he left his band behind him to go it alone. Evan Dando is another in this category of musicians who are much more palatable when they have solid bandmates to anchor their feet to the ground.

Inflated egos, however, are not the only reason that pursing a solo career is a venture so fraught with potential pitfalls. For, even more common than the egomaniac who finally admits that they aren't willing to share the attention is the lead singer who uses their solo career to unleash all of the bottled up sentimentality that they've been shoring up for all those years of playing in the band. Paul McCartney is the most obvious of these cases. He's pure genius when his nearly perfect pop sensibility is paired with John Lennon's bittersweet and experimental songwriting. But left to his own devices, he comes up with something like "The Long and Winding Road". To his credit, he also came up with the heartbreakingly sweet "Yesterday", but that's only because he's Paul freaking McCartney and his hits more than make up for his misses. But the point here is that even for a guy who was in one of the greatest bands in all of rock history, solo songwriting can be a one-way ticket to a syrupy sentimentality that only sappy teenage girls and nostalgic baby boomers can stand.

Graig Markel, the former lead singer for Seattle-based punk-pop band New Sweet Breath, seems like a victim of the latter phenomenon at times. Whereas his soft, breathy voice and angular guitar worked beautifully within the framework of the band's perky yet jaded pop, Markel on his own plays fast and loose with the heartstrings, frequently luxuriating in that dangerous space between being sincere and just plain embarrassing. This has been true of his three previous records, and, unfortunately, it is also true of his newest project, Tall Tales on Tape, out on Sonic Boom Recordings. While most of the time he steers more towards a level of songwriting that maintains a compelling balance between confession and detachment, there are moments when the combination of his emotionally bare lyrics and his soulful singing veer towards a realm best left to avowed easy-listing sap like Aaron Neville or Bryan Adams.

But that is not to say that the album is without considerable merits. Though cringe inducing, Markel's moments of hyper-senitimentalism are few and far between, and the music that lies between then is uniformly good. Like his previous record, The Gospel Project, Tall Tales is a moody, meandering collection of finely crafted songs. Influenced equally by '70s-era soul and Elliot Smith-style pop, Markel's tunes ease you into a low-blood pressure world where heartbreak is always right behind you or just around the corner. As a former Seattlite, my favorite aspect of Markel's songwriting has always been his ability to evoke the imagery of the Pacific Northwest in his music. Listening to a gorgeously understated song like "Black and White and Numb All Over", I can't help but think about driving on a winding mountain road, evergreens towering up to a cloudy sky the color of milk. "Saturday Nigh Fractures" is similarly a gem, starting out thick with distorted drum and bass and opening up to a drowsy, pop-driven melody whose layers become more and more intricate as the song progresses. "The Year 3000 is Ahead" offers a wry meditation on his musical and personal evolution, opening up with the lines "The year 3000's just ahead / Disco is nearly dead / I won a free trip to Club Med / And gave away my indie cred". The last song on the record, "Your Favorite Colors", is a nice showcase for Markel's amazingly versatile voice, slipping in and out of a ringing falsetto with a graceful ease that would make even the most seasoned chanteur green with envy.

As this is Markel's fourth album since going solo, he is pretty firmly embedded in the genre of singer-songwriter by now. And, altogether, this is a good thing. Although he sometimes falls victim to the temptation of oversentimentality, he has managed the transition to a solo career with many of his best qualities intact. His voice is golden and his songs are sad and consistently melodic without being formulaic. However, one can't help but wish that one day he'd add his considerable talents to a collective project once again, just for the sake of stirring up the mix and adding a little variety to his heartfelt tunes.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.