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Jono McCleery: Pagodes
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/23/2015)
I often remark on how varied the singer-songwriter scene can be stylistically. The archetype for such practitioners of the art is the folkie with an acoustic guitar, though others can work with a band. This time, we have a distinctive singer-songwriter whose sound incorporates the standard acoustic-guitar centered accompaniment, but also gets into some sample-based music more typical of what you might expect for a dance or commercial pop group. And the results are quite interesting and a pleasant surprise that this kind of fusion works as well as it does. The album is by Jono McCleery, and it’s called Pagodes.
Jono McCleery is a British artist and Pagodes is his third release. His first, in 2008 was fan-funded, and had a somewhat similar sound but had little distribution in the US. The new album has a number of distinctive aspects to it. McCleery’s songs are often atmospheric in sound and impressionistic in lyrics. His vocal style can range from a kind of Nick Drake contemplative mellow with a touch to jazz, to one influenced by soul singers. But the facet of this album that stands out is the way it goes back and forth between a folky acoustic guitar-dominated sound and arrangements based on samples, like the hip-hop world, though with rather different types of sounds used. There is also an orchestral presence in the form of a few strings up to a kind of chamber ensemble. And there are hints of classical influence as well. Sometimes, it’s not clear what consists of samples and what is real, though there are instances of rather real-sounding instruments suddenly bending out of shape and turning into loops. McCleery works with two different producers on the album. Tom Rowkins and Royce Wood, Jr. But the sonic direction of the tracks does not correspond directly with the presence or absence of each producer. Some of it comes across as a bit quirky, but for the most part the sonic juxtaposition is engaging and frequently attention-getting, especially in the transitions between the more conventional-sounding tracks and the somewhat mutated texture of others. And through it all, McCleery’s vocals keep it all grounded musically, though his singing often has an airy quality. All this would be for naught without good compositions, and McCleery’s music has enough sophistication that the imaginative sonic treatments take it to a higher level.
The opening track This Idea of Us, shows the folky side of the album echoing somewhat the sound of Nick Drake. The understated string arrangement helps to evoke Nick Drake. <<>>
That is followed by the only cover tune on the album, Age of Self by Robert Wyatt, one-time member of the 1960s British progressive band Soft Machine. It’s a good fit for the rest of the album. <<>>
The first of the sample-based accompaniments comes on the track Since I, which has all the elements of sample-constructed dance tunes, and it does have a kind of gentle beat that hints at bossa nova. The atmospheric sound of this straight-out love song makes it a highlight of the album. <<>>
One of the more curious tracks sonically is called Painted Blue. The piece is constructed around a somewhat scrambled but still recognizable loop of part of Debussy’s Clair de Lune played on harp. In fact that may be where the album’s title Pagodes came from. Pagodes is the first movement of the Debussy piano piece Estampe. This track Painted Blue is another appealing love song lyrically. <<>>
Another sonically engaging piece is Clarity, which has more of the mutant sampled harp. McCleery’s vocal approach takes a turn toward a more soul-influenced direction after the folkier approach of the earlier tracks. <<>>
It’s back to the folk-style sound on the track called Bet She Does, which is interesting as a song without much additional production elements. <<>>
The texture of the sound takes a jazzy direction on a track called Fire in My Hands, which has a jazz-influenced piano sample as its sonic foundation. <<>>
The album concludes with another distinctive musical mixture, the appropriately named So Long. The mix of jazzy vibes with what sounds like a small orchestra gives McCleery’s love-song lyrics a fascinating twist. <<>>
Pagodes, the new third album by singer-songwriter Jono McCleery is a frequently intriguing album that takes mostly love songs and puts them into a setting that mixes what would seem like sonic opposites – folky acoustic music with sample-based dance music techniques, which is woven into an often-atmospheric sound. The result is quite distinctive and in a way, surprising in how artistically compatible it turns out to be. It helps that the underlying musical material is worthwhile, and McCleery’s flexible vocals lend themselves to this kind of creative conglomeration. Trying this kind of thing is fraught with the danger of its becoming some kind of musical curiosity or just downright bad, but in the case of McCleery and his producer colleagues, it’s all very well done.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. McCleery’s vocals are well-recorded with good clarity and the right amount of atmospheric treatment, while the sample-based instrumentation is surprisingly clean. The dynamic range, the difference between the supposedly soft and loud parts of the music is not great, but it’s better than most albums that involve a lot of sampling.
There are certainly many acoustic-guitar strumming singer-songwriters on the music scene, but it’s edifying to hear someone who takes a very original approach with the genre and in the process makes such an appealing album.
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