I've long been a fan of a fairly unknown singer/songwriter from Kansas City, Missouri by the name of Andy Graham. I had the pleasure of getting to know him through my days running Cactus Gum when he was involved in a number of projects, from his band Dot.Dot.Commies to a great radio program on the University of Kansas radio station called "The LoFi Show." Graham wrote songs with a wonderful sense of humor and irony that were as catchy as they were moving. I lost touch with Andy Graham in 1998 or 1999, but found him again through the wonderful Elfcap.
Graham has been hard at work over the years and has assembled an impressive catalog of solo recordings. However, he went into the studio to record the best of the lot on "This Tyrant is Free." It's a wonderful mix of pop music, pedal steel, and Graham's sense of humor. It's hard to believe this hasn't been picked up by a label yet.
The album opens with the brilliant "Glorious." This song is a good time defined. Everytime I hear the chorus wail, "Glorious! Triumphant! Optimistic! Transcendant!" I want to get up and dance. It?s like you're at this great party and so is this girl (or boy) you've had a crush on for months who never seemed to notice you, but they approach you and start flirting with you. This is one of those moments you never forget, and this is one of those songs you can only hope to write. Graham has a voice that's somewhere between Stephan Malkmus and James Mercer, and his songwriting style is somewhere in that realm as well. The pedal steel on the chorus sends this song over the top. It's so fucking good. It's a bold move kicking an album off with an absolute gem like this, and I give Graham double points for it.
The next two tracks are both quite short (under 2 minutes). "Not the One" reminds me of my ex and I love it. "I'm the one for you and I'll never be," says the chorus over a jangly chord concoction. His sense of humor is all over lines like, "I'm not impressed by your knowledge of European history." This is one of those songs that the singer smiles through in disgust. It's that sardonic and ironic smile that you don when you're in a room full of people you hate, but who think you're an interesting little freak. "No Capacity" is a short rocker which is a combination of early Wilco if Stephen Malkmus was the singer. It's strange and affecting.
"Blurred Back" features an amazing pedal steel solo. I never thought I'd hear such a thing on a record like this, but that's why it's so good. It's like driving through downtown Montreal and finding Chinatown (I have no clue if there is even a Chinatown in Montreal, but bear with me). It's this unexpected thing, but the further in you get, you start seeing all these delightful restaurants, exciting shops, and interesting people and you're glad you kept your mind open.
This album takes all sorts of odd left turns. There're layers of instrumentation and vocals everywhere. "Cold Scene" has this round-and-round-we-go feeling to it. What the hell do I mean by that? There's this lead guitar part that just goes around in circles through the whole song. The music mostly stays the same, but the vocals move through different phases. It's just staring into a whirlpool and watching your plastic ship sink to the bottom. It's wonderful. Graham continues on as leader of the expedition with the silly and fun "Motorcyle Shades." I get these weird funk vibes from this track (and not in some stupid Rick James sort of way). There's also hints of country. It's a weird mix that works. I remember the first time I was convinced to eat chocolate-covered pretzels. I hated the idea of chocolate and salty pretzels together; it seemed absolutely disgusting. Someone finally made me try them and I've been hooked ever since. I discovered I love salty stuff and chocolate together, just as I'm learning I like multiple, random genres of music together.
"Tyrant on the Sea" features some nice trumpet playing. It gives this album yet another flavor to it. I think the overriding influence, other than indie rock, is country. Alterna-country this is not. It's pop music by nature, but on a much more sophisticated level. As one vocal track screams "This tyrant is free!" and another echoes with a string of words I can't quite make out, Graham just goes off. It's disorienting in a good way. It's like being caught in the middle of a heated argument on a pirate ship. Why a pirate ship? I dunno, that's just what I imagine. "She tells me I'm one way. I tell her she's to blame," shows his sense of humor and irony again on "Feminine Side." The trumpet returns for the outro of Graham just singing "Ba-ba-badda-ba-badda-ba" in anthemic fashion. I love this song.
The album closes with the hilarious "So Many Girls." Graham sings about how there are so many girls in the world and how he wants to be with them all. Philandering never sounded so entertaining and funny. "I loved you girl, but you've taken up so much of my time. I wish you'd just leave me alone." I know the song is tongue-in-cheek, but he sounds so sincere and honest. He's a hippie singing about the ?60s when he says, "There's so much love to be had." The jarring piano playing is the perfect compliment to the return of the pedal steel. There's so much dry wit in this song that Malkmus would be impressed. It's a fitting end to an excellent album.
I'm a bit sad I lost touch with Andy Graham and didn't get to experience his transformation as a songwriter as it happened. He was always good, but now he's absolutely great. This album is a testament to years of honing a skill and having a damn good time in the process. "Everytime I call your name, I've been blown off course," he sings on the opening track. Wherever he went, and whatever happened was good for all of us. In some sense, then, he's just arrived, and now Andy Graham is going places, folks. 8/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)