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(Emote Records 8 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/3/2011)
Music and technology have always been intertwined. Every instrument is in one way or another a piece of technological innovation, from the great baroque-era pipe organs to Stratocaster guitars to all manner of synthesizers. Of course, the technology can be a double-edged sword, especially as it relates to electronic devices. The early synthesizer artists, who devoted a great deal of time and effort into their work defined new sounds and approaches to music. But the technology grew to the point that it became easy to turn on the machine, fiddle with some buttons and out came music, with very little musicianship or understanding of the art required. Hence there has been a seemingly never-ending stream of dumb synthesizer pop, usually with singers who would never be able to perform without pitch-correction technology.
It's often interesting when tech-savvy artists rebel against the technology and come out with some mostly acoustic music. This week, we have an example of a singer-songwriter of some considerable musical skill and credibility exploring the technology and coming up with an interesting and satisfying recording. It's Gregory Douglass, whose new eighth CD is called Lucid.
Thirty-year-old Burlington, Vermont-based singer-songwriter Gregory Douglass was winning talent contests in his early teens, and has been creating own music since high school. While attending a private college-prep boarding school in New Hampshire, he created the music for his first two CDs. Upon graduation, he was given a special music award and the headmaster announced that Douglass would be the first person he would encourage not pursue college but to get straight into music, which is what Douglass did.
Since then, he has created a stream of albums and toured widely, developing a fan-base, and has has worked as a sideman other artists. His style has been compared to that of Fiona Apple or Jeff Buckley.
For this new CD, Douglass decided to plunge into a mostly, solo-computer assisted project, using software that artists like Imogen Heap, have used. (Ms. Heap is another of those artists who is very creative in the use of technology.) Douglass proved to be quite adept at preserving the substance of the music, and not falling victim to letting the technology take over. There are lots of interesting sonic textures, but it rarely sounds like a techno album. The arrangements are fairly sophisticated and I am sometimes reminded of the approach taken by Peter Gabriel.
Lyrically, Douglass points out, the CD is a concept album. It's basically a set of songs based on dreams Douglass had. So sometimes it has that ethereal or surreal quality.
Douglass is heard on most of the instruments, some of which reside in the software he uses, while he is joined by cellist Monique Citro, plus contributions from electric guitarist Dylan Allen and drummer-percussionist Matt Bogdanow. The result sometimes has a kind of art-rock quality, and one can also be reminded of people like Kate Bush or Tori Amos in creative, occasionally quirky arrangements and orchestration. Douglass' airy tenor vocals are appealing and would not be out of place on some mainstream pop records.
The CD opens with an atmospheric piece called The Night. It's a kind of introduction to the other dream-related songs. <<>>
With more of a rock edge is the title track Lucid, an interesting piece both musically for its creative and varied arrangement and for the good use of sonic effects. <<>>
Sometimes the CD starts to resemble more conventional commercial pop, though usually with some twists. White Out is lyrically strong, with sonic ingredients that conjure some current pop, but Douglass also adds some more eclectic musical ideas. <<>>
Douglass especially plunges into sonic manipulation and samples on one of the CD's more interesting tracks, Nayasayer. <<>>
Also intriguing in sound in the piece called Animal. It's more contemplative in texture, minus drums, though there are nice sonic touches. <<>>
A piece that starts with the idea of dreams and ends up rather like a love song is a piece called Dream Come True. <<>>
The closest thing to a nightmare on this collection of songs inspired by dreams is a piece called Raven. Despite the unsettling sound, its another of the CD's highlights. <<>>
Following that is a song in almost the opposite direction lyrically: One True Thing, a love song celebrating someone who is real and genuine. <<>>
Gregory Douglass' new CD Lucid is a good example of a talented artist adopting computer-based music technology and using it to add colors, rather than letting it overwhelm the music. This approach fits well with the CD's intent as a concept album with songs about dreams. And the arrangements are quite good, a far cry from most synthesizer-based pop and rock.
Our score for audio quality is about an A-minus. For the most part the studio effects are handled well, and there is decent clarity on the acoustic instruments. The recording, like so many others on these days is undermined by the volume compression used in the mastering which squashes out the natural musical volume differences.
Gregory Douglass has been releasing his own recordings on an independent basis since he started. For this project, he used the increasingly popular technique of encouraging fans to pre-pay for their CDs and downloads, thus raising the capital make the recording, and pretty much eliminating any need for a record label. I was thinking that back in the days when the major record companies controlled so much, an artist like Gregory Douglass doing a more experimental album release with a rather different sound would have been frowned upon. But the combination of technology, artistic independence and a big helping of musical creativity has resulted in a worthwhile and downright interesting album.
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