Naked to the World: Glass Half Full
by George Graham
(Stone Poet Music As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/17/99)
At the close of the 20th Century, contemporary music seems to be heading in two opposite directions: the heavily produced commercial pop route in which the music on the record bears almost no resemblance to an actual live performance; and what has been called the "roots-rock" path, eschewing synthesizers and the technological trappings of slickness for music that relies on tried-and-true traditions of rock, folk, blues and country, with old-fashioned instrumentation and a recording which sounds like a real band who could play the music live. The former variety still sells a lot more records in a world dominated by the commercial media. But roots rock bands are proliferating to the point that musical honesty seems to be becoming a bit of a fad of its own, giving rise to plenty of clichés. However, it's not hard to separate those bands with something to say from those just following in the trend.
This week we have the third album by a Southern California group called Naked to the World, who combine excellent songwriting with an unpretentious and appealing delivery. The title of their new CD is Glass Half Full. But it also marks something of a change for a group which has gone through a considerable personnel upheaval, with only two of the previous six members continuing into the new lineup.
Naked to the World got its start when singer-songwriter Kevin Fisher met a female violinist named Daryl S. -- she only used the initial of her last name -- and they began performing in clubs. Fisher worked as a staff songwriter for a Nashville publishing company, and already had a body of work to his name, though much was presumably written to be performed by others. Naked to the World was Fisher's opportunity to present his own songs and to make music more suited to his own creative yearnings rather than composed to order for the country music business. Naked to the World eventually grew to a sextet, though they remained almost entirely acoustic, which nicely suited Fisher's folky, contemplative songs. After their limited-distribution first album, their second CD Pilgrim's Kiss gained a good deal of recognition, received wider distribution, and won one of our Graham Awards for best albums of 1996.
Naked to the World then experienced the kind of personnel shifts that afflict many a group, with founding fiddler Daryl S., and the rhythm section leaving. Fisher and the other remaining co-founder of the group, guitarist David James, were signed to a small record label in a deal that ultimately was considered a failure by the group. That label insisted that they change their name, with all the personnel shifts. So they became Strange Angels, and made an album under that group-name titled Gravity and Grace. By all reports it was a much more electric record than the Fisher and James were happy with. After that record deal fell through, and they were made aware of the fact that there was another band from Canada called Strange Angels, they became Naked to the World again, firmed up their new lineup and finally recorded a long-awaited follow-up to Pilgrim's Kiss, including new versions of many of the songs that were on the ill-fated Strange Angels album. While the new CD Glass Half Full is less electric than the Strange Angels effort reportedly was, the new Naked to the World is nevertheless somewhat more electric than the old, even though founders Fisher and James are the guitar players who are doing the plugging in. The new lineup also includes Swedish-born bassist Peter Törnell and drummer Bill Cinque.
Despite the more electric sound, the quality of the songs is undiminished. Fisher is basically a romantic in the best sense. The album's title Glass Half Full nicely summarizes Fisher's outlook of optimism sometimes under less-than perfect circumstances. And as he had done in the past, Fisher can create some delightful songs weaving historical figures from the arts, or in the case of one song, the sciences, into his lyrics. But there's also a bit of social commentary, and songs about failure as well as success in relationships.
Two-and-a-half years ago Pilgrim's Kiss showed a little Beatles influence from time to time. Glass Half Full has a lot of subtle musical touches that will bring flashes of recognition from fans of the Fab Four. While Fisher's lyrics are in a rather different style than Lennon and McCartney, one can hear hints of George Harrison in some of the guitar lines and the Beatles style of interesting chord changes.
Things get under way with a rather Beatles-like riff on the opening of Happy Man. <<>> But, lyrically the song becomes an interesting exploration of a less-than-successful relationship. <<>>
The group gets back to a bit more to its folk roots on the following song, Everything You Mean to Me, though this optimistic love song is still rather electric. <<>>
More like the group's Pilgrim's Kiss album is the song that served as the title piece for the ill-fated 1997 Strange Angels album, Gravity and Grace. The track highlights Fisher's great lyric writing and gift for the turn of a phrase. <<>>
My favorite track is called Albert Einstein Dreams, a little playful musical speculation about the physicist and his world beyond science. <<>>
New Ivory Tower is one of the songs offering a bit of social commentary woven into a consideration of the creative process and by extension, art in general. The arrangement is an interesting blend of strong rock drums and acoustic instrumentation including a mandolin. <<>>
One of the more upbeat sets of lyrics comes wrapped in a musical arrangement with a distinctly sad quality. She Believes in Me also carries hints of Beatles influence. <<>>
Another of the album's highlights is the song called Strange Angels, a fine piece of writing by Fisher providing an interesting consideration of life in general. <<>>
More historical figures turn up in The Art of Life revolving about a supposed meeting with the wife of painter Claude Monet. <<>>
Those hearing the Beatles influence might be surprised to see that the track called Rain is not the Beatles song, but another one by Naked to the World of the same name, though the musical influence from the Lads from Liverpool is not hard to discern. And that should be taken as a compliment. <<>>
Glass Half Full, the new release by Naked to the World, is a fine record that features first-rate writing, mostly by Kevin Fisher, with tasteful instrumentation that maintains some of the group's folk background. But with the revised personnel, this is a more electric album than their very impressive 1996 release Pilgrim's Kiss, and with that extra level of energy comes a slightly more pop-oriented style, though their influences come from distinguished sources like the Beatles. The center of the group's sound, including Fisher's pleasing, unpretentious vocals, and the inclusion of acoustic instrumentation in virtually every track remains, but this album definitely rocks more than its Naked to the World predecessor. For my own taste, I think the more acoustic instrumentation of Pilgrim's Kiss frames the songs better, and that album really had some memorable songs. But the more energetic instrumentation on Glass Half Full will probably find wider audiences.
In term of production and sound, Glass Half Full is quite good. Like their previous album, this was a do-it-yourself project with Kevin Fisher producing and other band members also working on the mix. The result has a clean, uncluttered sound free from excessive or trendy studio effects. The dynamic range could have been a bit wider, due to compression in the mastering process, but overall, it rewards playing on a good stereo system.
Naked to the World, despite all their changes in personnel, name, and to some extent style, remain true to their principles of great songwriting and honest delivery. As a result Glass Half Full is an album that will stand the test of time, likely to sound good and have something to say after most of the current raft of roots rock bands begin to sound stale.
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