With the dwindling cost of recording, many musicians have socked themselves away in home recording studios, doggedly following their own muse to produce their own perfect little record, free of all the baggage of the record industry and rigid radio play lists. Then, when it's finally finished, that little record more often than not is sold in the internet version of that dusty old record shop down the corner, where even the owner's cat listens to Cat Power. Maybe people buy the record and love it, and maybe no one does. But that's not the point. The point is that the record exists.
This week our aural journey takes us into the bedroom of Joe Ongie, Southern California popsmith and café owner. Ongie has been at this for awhile, as he already produced two albums: 1993's Pilgrim Soul and 1996's Cuckold. He's also apparently working on his fourth and fifth. He also was one of Aimee Mann's backup musicians about two years ago. Oh, and he and his wife own a pair of bohemian Orange County cafés that also feature live performances and poetry called the Gypsy Den. Joe Ongie is busy.
And on his third album, Joe Ongie sounds a bit like you might imagine. There's a dash of confessional singer/songwriter à la Elliot Smith, a bit of twisted and cynical pop/rocker à la E of The Eels, a sprinkling of the D.I.Y. singer/songwriter/producer aesthetic of Jon Brion, and a dose of that straight-forward Beatles-esque power-pop that music geeks all love so much. The end result is a meticulously crafted, charming, and original pop record.
While it's difficult to completely pin down Ongie's sound-the aforementioned influences are not often mixed in equal parts-it has the distinct sound of a craftsman. Ongie is someone who makes music because he loves music, and because he wanted to commit these particular songs to tape, not because he wanted to make money off of them or needed millions of people to hear them. It's just because he wanted to. And likewise, there's a certain quality of hearing a record that's the work of one mind and one ego alone, without swarms of industry folk having their say.
That same quality of course does lend imperfection as not everything on Lovefest immediately grabs the ear. But it beats the "decision by committee" quality of most commercially produced pop music.
The most charming quality of Lovefest is that the feeling that you're exploring the artistic workings of one man. If he decides he wants to throw in some horns on "Tomorrow the World", he does. If he wants to start the second half of the album with blinding power-pop, and he does, he begins it with "Whatever Baby Wants". He even wants to exhibit his sketching abilities on the album's artwork, a rather creepy Shel Silverstein-esque drawing of a naked man shooting himself through the heart with a bow and arrow.
So that image-however inaccurate -- that Ongie locked himself in his basement to record these songs (though it should be noted that his production is quite crisp and clean, unlike most basement-demo type artists) and then toiled away like an elf by transcribing the lyrics, drawing the artwork, and burning all the CDs himself is what prevails.
And lyrically, Lovefest is not exactly lightweight either. Ongie's songs are cynical tales of the inability for the species known as man and woman to relate to one another. Not new stuff, of course, but it always makes for interesting lyrical fodder. The sunny "Best Damn Day of My Life", for example, tells the story of a man elated over meeting a girl, despite disapproval from friends and a sense that he's blind to her problems. So despite the song's bouncy surface, it's dominated by lines like "'Cause I'm glad that I've got her / Glad to be her lamb to the slaughter / And all she has to do is simply smile / Then it's the best damn day of my life".
So as an unassuming entry into a crowded landscape of independently-minded singer/songwriters, Lovefest holds up very well, and deserves more of an audience than it can probably receive through it's humble means. But then again, being discovered is not the point. This is music for Joe Ongie, his friends, and the few others who will hear this album, and that's the way it should be and that's what makes it charming. That if you wanted you could meet Joe for a Spicy Bean Burger and a Gypsy Lemonade at his café and talk about music, then you could. And that's exactly why it's so easy to like.