Adam Marsland – Go West – Karma Frog KF-0624, CD 1: 50:55; CD 2: 39:55 ****:
(Adam Marsland – vocals, guitar, keyboards, drums, bass, percussion, bells, producer; Chaos Band: Teresa Cowles – bass, vocals, percussion; Kurt Medlin – drums, percussion (vocals on track 5, CD 2); Evie Sands – vocals, guitar, sequencer; Guests: Eric Summer – viola; Rich McCulley – slide guitar, guitar, vocals; Tommy Rickard – drums, vocals; Probyn Gregory – trumpet, trombone; Ken Page – tenor sax; Tracy Landecker – vocals; Steve Aijian – additional vocals)
Double albums in pop music can be troublesome beasts. Notable examples with mixed results include Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, The Beatles’ White Album (face it, Fab Four fans, it’s a scattershot collection and pieces like "Piggies" and "Revolution 9" were throwaways) or The Smashing Pumpkins’ indulgent Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Stellar releases include Bruce Springsteen’s The River or Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. But with the advent of the longer compact disc format, modern double albums are few and far between. And a good one emanating from the underground pop scene from a relatively unknown musician is even rarer.
Which is why Adam Marsland’s opus, Go West, is such a great discovery. Marsland has been part of the Los Angeles indie-pop community since at least the early nineties, as leader of Cockeyed Ghost and more recently as a solo artist fronting his Chaos Band. Go West is Marsland’s fifth release, but the only all-new studio effort since 2004’s You Don’t Know Me. And like all good art, it is ambitious, did not come into being without heartache or sweat, and is filled with contrasting emotions.
Although Go West is not a conceptual project comparable to The Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, per the album title, it has a thematic continuity that centers on a young adult moving away from childhood familiarity to life’s reality. The lyrical content thus runs from a first love’s idyll to dark topics such as incest, depression, and betrayal. The music, on the other hand, is pure pop nirvana: a devastating blend of power-pop, sixties and seventies rock/pop, punk, snippets of country, a slab of soulful funk, and overflows with sharp melodies and hooks.
After an intro that contains a homage to Marsland’s brother, who unexpectedly died when Marsland was on tour in 2008, the record kicks into gear on "Burn Down the World," which somehow merges Steely Dan’s multi-hued majesty with The Rolling Stones’ rollicking roughness. Ken Pace’s vibrant sax gallops along and keeps stride with the bustling rhythm guitar and hopping harmony chorus. Later, Marsland follows with a likeminded, brass-driven cover of The Damned’s "Stranger on the Town," a flippant and piercing narrative about a new man in the city without any luck.
The energy stays vividly vigorous on the Blondie-meets-The Killers neo-disco ditty, "I Don’t Wanna Dance With You," which sounds like a club hit turned inside out. The party-pulsing amusement is an anomaly but Marsland makes this hyperactive tune work well: the male/female duet that pits his falsetto against Teresa Cowles’ voice is flawless, as is the harmony chorus singing and the irrepressibly fun dance floor groove.
From there, Go West treads other familiar-seeming musical byways. "Learning the Ropes," another cut about a post-adolescent male trying to get noticed in the metropolis, melds Todd Rundgren-esque self-aware pop with some eighties music touches such as Hall and Oates and Bruce Hornsby. The holiday-inclined relationship drama "December 24" is another Cowles and Marsland duet and one of the finest pop pieces found on the first disc: Marsland states the structure has an intentional Lindsey Buckingham kinship. The other unforgettable track from disc one is the disturbing power-pop outing "1 in 4." Instrumentally it has a thumping back beat inspired by Dennis Wilson with an arrangement closer to The Smashing Pumpkins. However, Marsland’s angry condemnation against rape and incest is probably not the first thing unsuspecting listeners may anticipate: Marsland sings, "My baby’s got a problem with her dad/He loved her so hard that it made her go bad." Ironically, "1 in 4" could be a success in the same vein as Steely Dan’s "Haitian Divorce," a classic cut that also cloaks sober subject-matter beneath a radio-friendly exterior. Two more lively power-pop trinkets round out the first disc, the tongue-in-cheek "Like Other Men," and a enthusiastic, new adaptation of "Cut and Run," which Marsland has performed in several different versions over the years.
It is important to note Go West is unlike most albums: the ace material is not rolled into the record’s onset, but rather spread throughout, which is why the second disc has as many compelling moments as the first. Maintaining the thematic course, the second CD has a lyrical flow focused on expectations that often go unfulfilled or are changed due to unforeseen circumstances.
The second side starts with alt-rocker "When I Lied to Everyone," which has a Pixies-like stance, complete with ambiguous textual details, vocals akin to Frank Black’s and roaring post-punk guitar.
One of the more interesting musical detours is a faux hippie-funk number, "Half Life," a genre exercise that Marsland and his Chaos Band ultimately pull off, even if the effect is not fully earnest. The underlying percussion, harmony vocals, and Cowles’ propulsive bass are the elements that make "Half Life" a memorable maneuver. It also acts as an efficient warm-up for the Stevie Wonder-ish "Two Children in a Bed," propelled by groovy clavinet riffs, Evie Sands’ soulful lead voice which is nicely complemented by Marsland’s Prince-oriented falsetto, a horn arrangement that punctuates the choruses, and an Motown-motivated bass line.
As a contrast there is "Grateful for the Rain," which is Marsland’s most unabashedly poppy and accessible-sounding creation. Fans of amicable pop will love this amalgam of a whole slew of seventies and eighties pop material, balanced by acoustic guitar, country-tinged slide guitar, and a honeyed melody.
And of course the secret to any good song collection is, if someone puts in a perfect pop tune, then follow it up with a rambunctious garage-punk track. In Marsland’s case that is The Replacements-soundalike "This Is Hard," with a toughened hunk of gritty guitar, deliberately sloppy bass and drums, and disorderly vocals. Anyone who misses Paul Westerberg’s early misbehavior needs this shot of adrenaline.
The most disquieting verses on the second half, without a doubt, are in "My Pain," where Marsland adopts the persona of a mistreated man ready to take his revenge on the world around him, basically an examination on the roots of evil. In a cruel twist of fate, after the song was recorded and mixed, Marsland’s sister-in-law was one of 13 people gunned down in a Binghampton, New York classroom by a troubled loner. "My Pain," without meaning to, gained intense and very personal significance.
Go West is an undertaking that operates logically in two ways: it’s a highly engaging pop/rock conception or dig a little deeper and it is an engrossing journey from hope to despair and back to hope. Either way, Marsland has put together an unassuming masterpiece.
1. Intro – Standing Chicago
3. Burn Down the World
4. Stranger on the Town
5. I Don’t Wanna Dance with You
6. Learning the Ropes
7. December 24
8. 1 in 4
9. Go West
10. Talking About Myself
11. Like Other Men
12. Cut and Run
13. Tread This World So Lightly
1. When I Lied to Everyone
3. Two Children in a Bed
4. Fade Away
5. Grateful for the Rain
6. This Is Hard
7. No Return
9. My Pain
— Doug Simpson