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(An independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/12/2003)
In reviewing music, I like to reserve my biggest praise for innovation, or at least cleverness in combining existing influences in unfamiliar ways. But there is also merit in doing something fairly familiar really well. And that is what we have for you this time, a recording of attractive, mellow pop and rock that seems to get everything just right -- music that breaks no new ground, and indeed seems always to remind you of one thing or another vaguely, but shows brilliance in its execution. The CD is the second by a young Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter named Josh Aran, and it bears the intriguingly literate title Between Us There Arose Happiness.
A native of the Twin Cities, Aran took up guitar and singing at an early age. After graduating from Lawrence University in Wisconsin, Aran returned to his home town and plunged into the local music scene, establishing some musical alliances and attracting attention as an mostly acoustic singer-songwriter. In 2001, he released his debut CD, called Sun Up, described as largely acoustic in sound. Since then, he has started a band, with regular drummer Justin Korhonen and bassist Eric Appelwick. That band, with Korhonen also serving as co-producer with Aran, plus some additional players appear on Between us There Arose Happiness, Aran's new second release. The sound ranges from alternative rock-influenced, to neo-psychedelic, to introspective and reminiscent of Nick Drake. Lyrically, practically everything is a love song of one sort or another. But it's all remarkably well-crafted, with attractive melodies, a languid atmosphere, appealing vocals, and plenty of little sonic touches that add subtly but measurably to the overall effect that makes this CD more than the sum of its familiar-sounding parts.
This generous 55-minute-long recording takes the listener through a range of moods lyrically and musically, but does not stray far from the relaxed, understated sound that can run from almost irresistibly hummable to vaguely melancholy. Aran and his colleagues manage to include one distinctive twist or another in each song, from bits from cell phones playing tunes, to an old electronic instrument called the Chamberlain to an ominous background ambience on one piece. Aran followed the tried and true pattern of the Beatles in striving to ensure at least one distinctive feature in each piece, even though the overall result has a very familiar feel. And what makes Aran's music all the more intriguing, is that despite the sound that you'll swear you've heard before, there is no obvious emulation going on. One would be hard pressed to name one particular artist Aran's music resembles. It's all done very tastefully.
The CD gets under way with Driving Nowhere, a fairly lengthy piece combining bits of lugubrious alternative rock with some hints of neopsychedelia. <<>>
The one of the album's more brilliant tracks is called I Await You, a fascinating panache of alternative rock instrumental cliches with a distinctive turned-around beat, reminiscent of XTC, while Aran's vocals seem almost detached in their calmness in the face of the busy arrangement. <<>>
Another memorably dreamy piece is Upon Returning to the Country, a distinctive love song with some especially fine vocal work by Aran. <<>>
One of Aran's most distinctive stylistic mixes on the CD is Beyond the Sun, which he performs by himself with acoustic guitar and a collection of keyboards. <<>>
A particularly appealing love song carries the curious title You Be the Girl. Musically, it is a wonderful collection of multi-hued sonic layers that hint at about 35 years of influences from the Beatles to the present. <<>>
Another of my favorite pieces is One of These Days, which has echoes of mellow British pop. In fact on this track, Aran's vocals can resemble Boo Hewerdine of the fine 1980s band The Bible. <<>>
The rockiest track on the album is called Spilling, which though well done, has a few too many rock platitudes compared to the rest of the CD.
Probably the most musically laid-back piece on this low-key album is called Untitled. With its mostly acoustic setting, it's a song with brief lyrics of unrequited love, concentrating on setting the mood instrumentally. <<>>
On Between Us There Arose Happiness, Minnesota singer-songwriter Josh Aran has created an exceptionally fine album by assembling musical ingredients we have all heard before into a very appealing mix that sounds familiar but defies ready categorization. Unlike many other musical revivalists, one would be hard pressed to name a single artist or group from whom Aran borrows more than a small bit here and there. The result is a very satisfying album that shows that a collection of laid-back melodic love songs can still sound fresh, with those familiar musical ingredients very skillfully combined and performed.
Our grade for sound quality is an "A-minus" with the mix being quite good, and the use of the studio effects and added sounds very well-handled. But the usual excessive volume compression which afflicts most pop CDs today was applied to this recording and some of the subtlety of the mix was lost, and this kind of music should not be pumped up in volume.
It's always encouraging to see a young artist take familiar ingredients and create something new in sound. Josh Aran has done that very impressively on his new CD.
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