Joel Pelletier: Chamber Pop
by George Graham
(Way Home Music 9801 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/14/99)
There have been lots of attempts over the years to combine classical influence with rock. In the mid-1960s there was the pioneering New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. By the late 1960s, the art rock scene developed, with its electric performances of pieces exhibiting some of the orchestral qualities of classical works. But one of the biggest influences setting the stage for most of the classical and rock fusion efforts were the recordings of the Beatles, whose classically-trained English-horn playing producer George Martin brought interesting and often quirky string and classical arrangements to the Fab Four's recordings. In his autobiography, Martin said that one of the main reasons it was small, chamber-like groups that accompanied the Beatles in their earlier recordings, rather than the larger orchestrations of some American pop music, was a tight budget. But the results were often brilliant: the sullen string quartet on Eleanor Rigby, the seemingly incongruous cellos on I Am a Walrus, and the wonderfully baroque trumpet on Penny Lane were just a few of the fruits of the Beatles-Martin collaboration.
Since the days of the Beatles, string arrangements on pop records have again tended toward the large, to add lushness to what may already be an over-ripe arrangement.
This week, we have an album that gets back to Beatles-like small-group classical-influenced arrangements, and in the process ends up sounding quite fresh. It's the newly nationally-released recording by Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter and bassist Joel Pelletier called, appropriately enough Chamber Pop.
Like the recent recording by Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues and Elvis Costello's work a while ago with the Brodsky String Quartet, Pelletier features a small string ensemble, in this case a quintet, with two violins, a viola (played by Jimbo Ross formerly of Richard Greene's Greene String Quartet), a cello and Pelletier's double bass, to perform his music. And like those other recent notable works, the string arrangements are closely integrated with the performance of the songs, rather than just providing an opulent texture. Pelletier also works in a rock band setting with electric guitar, bass and drums. But the string arrangements are central to most of the tracks on this distinctive CD.
Pelletier's background helped lead him to this approach -- he was raised in Massachusetts and attended the prestigious Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, studying classical composition. He cites both melodic pop music and the works of 20th Century classical composers such as Bártok as equally strong influences. While studying orchestral music, he played in rock bands at night. In his CD notes, he wrote that with his classical training and background, he figured that he would eventually settle down, at a sufficiently mature age, say 35, and get around to writing a serious classical work. But the two facets of his music began to come together at about that age, and he calls the upshot Chamber Pop. He says that the music on the CD took shape over about five years. Pelletier actually released a version of this CD at the beginning of 1998, but decided to revise it, rearranging the songs and adding a new one. He also included multi-media on the CD, such as translations of his lyrics into nine languages. So he calls this "Version 2.0."
As a songwriter, Pelletier is first-rate. His lyrics are interesting, avoiding the usual pop-song cliches. Musically his pieces are the rather rare combination of being melodic and hummable, and also interesting from a compositional standpoint. One can hear his influence from 20th Century classical composers in the string quintet arrangements, which can sometimes be angular and slightly dissonant, and include some pizzicato playing, which one hardly ever hears in string arrangements for pop songs. And the way Pelletier uses the strings is also creative -- sometimes they don't make their entrance until well into the song, when their appearance can mark a change in mood, while at others, they provide the sole accompaniment.
The CD opens with one of those rock-based songs in which the string quintet makes a delayed entrance, adding interest to the sound. The upbeat song What Are You Now? whose lyrics express less than complete admiration, starts with the rocky backing <<>> before the string quintet makes their appearance. <<>>
On the other hand, the strings dominate in one of the more musically distinctive tracks, Rather Have You, whose lyrics are a bit more mainstream in subject -- an articulate love song. Pelletier's classical composition training is apparent in the unconventional string arrangement. <<>>
Pelletier can also sound like a folkie on some songs. Wall Inside, with its thoughtful lyrics about self-doubt or inhibition, is accompanied by an acoustic guitar and the strings. <<>>
Pelletier reflects on the passage of time on two tracks. One is Birthday Song, inspired by the arrival of another birthday, and a reconsideration of one's life's goals. <<>>
The following song, 20th Century, is an unsentimental reminiscence of the past 100 years, written from the perspective of the coming century. This is one track that lacks the string section, and instead features an acoustic reggae setting. Pelletier plays his upright bass. <<>>
Another of the more interesting songs lyrically, is Touch. It sounds like a passionate love song, done as a jazzy waltz, but in the end, after Pelletier leaves out one detail <<>> it turns out that it was his hand that she touched and held. <<>>
Borrowing most from the 20th Century composers Pelletier admires is the track Sword, a song of lost love and pain. The string arrangement is quite fascinating, and adds much to the song. <<>>
Perhaps Pelletier's most unusual lyrics come on Not Afraid of the End, which takes a view that is simultaneously apocalyptic and optimistic. <<>>
The album ends with another piece that pays stylistic homage to Bártok. Never Be the Same, nicely performed by all involved. <<>>
Joel Pelletier is one of many pop performers with some training and background in classical music. But unlike most, he deftly combines both facets in his appropriately named CD Chamber Pop. He writes good, intelligent pop lyrics, which he performs in a vocal style that is appealing though not terribly distinctive in the world of singer-songwriters. But musically, his material stands out. His skill as a composer and arranger, combining tuneful melodic lines with his artistically substantial string arrangements, and songs that often take an interesting turn in themselves, makes this an album that will reveal something new each time one listens.
This is very much a do-it-yourself effort on Pelletier's part. He produced the CD as well as doing all the arrangements. He also painted the CD cover art, created the multi-media material on the CD, even designed the electronic type font used for the text in the booklet. When he's not making his own music, Pelletier works designing websites and also has had several bit parts in movies and TV shows as a musician playing a musician. After releasing an earlier version of this CD last year, Pelletier felt the need to go back and revise it for wider distribution.
Sonically, Chamber Pop gets B+ from us. Although the acoustic instruments are generally well recorded, and there is an interesting and rather refreshing dearth of reverberation on the strings, there is too much compression on the overall mix, which at times can add some noticeable distortion on peaks. "Pop" music is usually processed to be uniformly loud, but that detracts from the creative string arrangements on this CD, robbing them of some of the dynamics that the tasteful players put into their performance.
People have been trying with various degrees of success to mix classical and rock or pop. Joel Pelletier' Chamber Pop is one of the best of such efforts in recent times.
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