JOHN RAYMOND POLLARD: "Character": A Review
"Character", a 13-song musical tour/adventure over land and through time, is bi-continental musician John Raymond Pollard's fifth album of original songs. If there is a common theme running throughout the album, it's that-- true to its title-- John Raymond Pollard manages to create (and, in some cases, recreate) vivid, full-blooded characters through his music. He also creates (and, again, recreates) the actual settings that these characters find themselves in-- through fate or otherwise. Throughout "Character", there are equal parts reality and fantasy, past and present, socially/politically important and irreverent. "Bar Sinister" (literally defined as "the proof, condition, or stigma of illegitimate birth"), for example, boasts a medieval storyline and sound (including mouth harp), with a reference to "young Willie Shakespeare" and Pollard even adopting an Olde English twang to his voice. Listeners familiar with John Raymond Pollard's work will likely already know that this singer has a special affinity for both political awareness and the sounds of other cultures around the world. There's a misconception that music with political themes cannot be enjoyable. Likewise, the overused term "world music" is just too broad and too vague to clearly identify any individual artist's sound. Pollard defies those preconceptions with his music. More specifically, many of his songs have a heightened sense of political awareness but are delectably easy on the ears. Similarly-- and speaking of ears-- Pollard has a very keen ear for the music of many different cultures. He's probably one of the only artists who could reference Billy Graham and Reverend Moon, and deservedly (but more politely than its target deserves) take a swipe at our Vice President, known by the not-so-! subtle pseudonym of "Mr. Hal O. Burton", on "A Fool on the Hill ( Ballyhoo)"-- yet not have the song sound too, shall we say, "heavy". Indeed, the casual listener will likely enjoy the melody but not even catch the politically significant references, at least right away. If I didn't personally know the artists' own distaste for the evils of excessive capitalism, I would suggest that the catchy hook of the lyric "And you, what is it you listen to?..." on "Fool on the Hill", would make a great background theme for a commercial for I-Pod or an online music store!
The album's opener, "Angel's Wings", is a high-energy track, with an aura as spiritual as the title implies. It's bolstered by some energetic guitar playing, with accents of trumpet and violin for a somewhat medieval quality. Religious imagery abounds, and for a while we may interpret that "Angel's Wings" is about a spiritual awakening... until the astute listener learns that the song is actually about-- the Inquisition. "Family Values" takes a rather different turn, this time using present-day Far Rockaway, Queens, as a setting. As if the lyrics weren't telling enough ("Pretty like Maria, though not quite as young; Her mama kissed a greeting, slipping me the tongue"; "Her brother's back on welfare, little sis a petty thief; Her cousin's been professin', a newly found belief"...), the irony of this song becomes all the more apparent when we ponder how an artist with such an enlightened view of the world can be happy at a blue-collar family gathering in the outer boroughs of New York City. "Family Values" is really bolstered by some invigorating and exhilarating vocals by special guest vocalist Mary Edwards. "A Fool on the Hill" sucks the listener in with an amazingly infectious, almost retro-sounding melody and some unique musical gimmickry (Is that a flute we hear?)... yet with some very modern political references and themes. A much more overtly political drama-to-music comes with "Guantanamo". The subject is one that most artists wouldn't dare tackle, and the results hit the listener like a jagged-edged brick. Even the rhythm sounds heavy and oppressive, appropriately matching the atmosphere of chains, barbed wire, and cement that we envision. Some harrowing touches, like a spoken word interlude in Spanish, really contribute to the effect on the listener! . "Amazing Grace" is not, before you ask, a reworking of the gos pel standard, but rather an ethereal number with a rock guitar interlude. "My Only Vice is You (I'm Addicted to Your Kiss)" is a high-energy song performed with complete abandon-- and without irony, I might add! Speaking of being sung with abandon, "Special Delivery (Postal)", in which the artist takes on the persona of the ultimate disgruntled postal worker, is so deranged-- but often so funny-- that you just can't help but like it ("I'll take a trip to your zip code, I got my lick on your stamp; Melted cow bones and mint make a taste that gives my tongue a cramp.") . "The Recidivist (Hoosegow)" adopts a "Wild West" aura, with some tongue-in-cheek lyrics ("My cell phone is the wired kind"... "There's lots of bars that don't serve wine."). As the listener learns about the protagonist's fondness for a certain "Deputy Denny" ("I'll be with Deputy Denny; for you and me he keeps civil peace; You see he gives me a hard, ! a very hard time; Ooo-eeeh! We need release!"), the song becomes one of the most unorthodox stories about forbidden love that we have heard in a while... or perhaps the theme song for the most avant-garde spaghetti western you're likely to see.
A true high point comes with "At Stake", a song about one of history's most enduring heroines, Joan of Arc. Adding to the breathtaking vibe of this song is Pollard's unique touch of using both male and female voices to bring Joan's character to life. For this, Pollard gives a generous amount of voice time to Isabella Rose. Her vocals are grand, soaring, and far-reaching; she hits some amazing notes. In four minutes, this song possibly tells more about this famous messenger's motivations than all we've learned in history class, with a great deal of the credit going to Pollard's lyrics.
For "Character", John Raymond Pollard experiments with many different genres and themes, but throughout the entire album, Pollard's distinctive voice remains the enduring, stable element-- from the first lyric to the last. His voice is always clear in focus, always distinct in delivery. John Raymond Pollard has got plenty of his own unique shade of soul to spare, and he definitely carries his years of experience and worldliness (Note how I say "worldliness" and not "world-weariness") along with that voice. Given the central theme of "Character", it almost seems as though Pollard is reflecting that no matter where in the world you are or whatever time period you may be in, the inner soul-- as expressed through the human voice-- begs to remain the same. In the past, John Raymond Pollard's music has taken the listener by the hand and ear to discover the music of different cultures. On "Character", he takes us one step beyond and encourages us to discover other aspects of humanity through different periods of time. What universal lessons should we learn? Well, that's up to you!