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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1438

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Peter Murray: Ants and Angels
by George Graham

(Junction Triangle 001 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/5/2006)

Ever since the Beatles made an art form out of clever, sophisticated pop, generations of musicians have been following in their footsteps. The Fab Four embodied the unique combination of creativity, musical adventurousness, and a feeling for old-time British music hall. And when added to the classical background and skill as an arranger and producer that George Martin brought to the table, the result will live through the ages.

That was, of course, 40 years ago, and pop music has moved in a lot of directions since. But for many rock musicians, it's hard not to be smitten by the Beatles, to marvel at what they did from an art and technique standpoint. With appreciation comes influence, and ever since the emergence of the Beatles, there has been an almost constant stream of performers and bands to draw upon the Lads from Liverpool to one degree or another.

This week, we have another in this line of what I call "clever popsters," artists who absorb the upbeat melodic complexion of the Beatles, and groups who followed, and also bring to bear the musical and sonic creativity, and multi-layered approach that sets this kind of music apart from most commercial pop. The CD is by Peter Murray, and it's called Ants and Angels.

Peter Murray is a Canadian multi-instrumentalist who worked mainly as a sideman, playing bass with artists like Ron Sexsmith. He was in a band called Surrender Dorothy that toured internationally in the 1990s. He is also the author of a popular instructional book called "Essential Bass Technique." This is his first CD under his own name. He describes himself as a "perfectionist" and says that the songs on Ants and Angels "represents a huge amount of reflection and musician exploration." And that seems to be evident on the album.

While there are a few bands that are carrying on this kind of music these days, it seems that most of the "clever popsters" currently at work tend to be solo artists who labor in the studio, playing multiple instruments and overdubbing at great length. Peter Murray is one of those, playing guitars, bass drums and various other instruments, but he also is joined by a variable cast of supplementary players adding instruments in most of the categories, and often taking the role of guest soloists. Murray himself is at the center of things vocally, and in the tradition of the Beatles and this genre in general, he sings in an appealing high tenor rock voice, which he puts to good use, often overdubbing harmonies.

Another aspect that puts this into the realm of clever pop are the lyrics, which can be lighthearted, on the edge of humorous, and often taking a look at familiar subjects in a slightly idiosyncratic viewpoint, or in some cases, somewhat unconventional subjects.

Leading off, is one of those bits of offbeat creativity, Gen X DJ on E. It's power pop with fun lyrics for the 21 Century. <<>>

Skydiver Friends is a bit more laid-back in sound, and again full of quirky lyrics, lots of musical layers, and things like unexpected shifts in musical mood. <<>>

About the closest thing to a sad song on the CD is Where Do you Go, about one man's so-far unsuccessful quest for a date. Again, musically, it's a reminder of how well Murray has absorbed the values and songwriting techniques of this kind of music. <<>>

That is followed by a song that is almost the exact lyrical opposite: Live Alone, in which the protagonist is seeking to get away from a relationship. With a horn section and the curious addition of a banjo, it's one of the CD's more ambitious, and I think most outstanding tracks. <<>>

Part of the album's title comes from the song Murray Vs. the Ants, a kind of roots rock influenced piece inspired by an infestation of crawling insects. <<>>

Perhaps the most unexpected lyrics come on Ears Make Wax, a very clever celebration of one's body's internal defense systems. <<>>

Another interesting track is Never Easy, whose lyrics are urging optimism while the musical setting, in a rock waltz time hints at more serious-sounding art-rock. <<>>

The CD ends with what seems like an appropriate finale, Heavy Sleeper, a kind of love-departed song, whose ingenious lyrical twist has heavy sleeper leading to "heavy dreamer." <<>> The track goes out with a lengthy, classic, anthem-like rock guitar solo by David Celia. <<>>

Veteran Canadian sideman and bassist Peter Murray's new solo debut recording Ants and Angels is one of those great pop albums that absorbs influences ranging from the Beatles to Squeeze to XTC to more contemporary artists, but comes up with lots of clever and original ideas. So though it certainly hints at the Fab Four and their musical offspring, it rarely sounds derivative, and every one of the eleven songs has something new and interesting to offer, often in subtle layers. It's one of those appealing pop albums into which a great deal of work has gone, that may take several listenings to reveal itself. Even at its surface, it's a bright, fun music. And, conversely, it's also remarkably free from the annoying cloyness that afflicts a lot of this kind of pop.

Our sonic grade is close to an "A." It was apparently, at least in part a home-made recording. The clarity is good, the mix well captures the sonic twists that Murray's arranging puts into the songs, and the vocals sound is especially pleasing. The dynamic range is not bad for this kind of music.

There seem to be more and more artists, forty years after the Beatles, who still look upon them as inspiration for intelligent, creative, multi-layered pop. Peter Murray' CD is one of the best debuts in the genre to come along in quite a while.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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