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Over the past year, this writer has undergone an insidious process of musical wussification. Seems like just yesterday I was gazing lovingly at my Killdozer records; now I’m a drooling sycophant of each new sensitive pop savant. Degrading? Sure. Demoralizing? You betcha. For my sake, please pray Leo Sayer doesn’t attempt a comeback.
It was with some trepidation that I picked up Ashley Park’s debut album, Town and Country. Wimpy band name, wimpy title, wimpy-looking lad in shag cut posing just so on the back cover: This bore all the hallmarks of a CD I would hate myself for loving. But I’m a professional, and had a job to do. I crossed my fingers and prayed I’d loathe it.
Well, loathe it I don’t, but I’m no drooling sycophant, either. Town and Country is a languid, bloodless affair, and so prissily retro-cosmopolitan in tone that I had to resist the urge to rush out and buy my wife a pillbox hat. But Ashley Park’s pop revivalism has its charms, which not even the horrid Hawaii Five-O-style horns polluting “N.Y.” can entirely dissipate. The meticulous arrangements, wispy vocals, and keyboards that dominate Town and Countrywith the exception of two songs on the disc, there isn’t an electric guitar in sightlet you know that Ashley Park would rather sip a martini with Burt Bacharach than rut with the Rolling Stones. But the better tunes are so well-crafted and/or infectiously bouncy that you almost forget their antecedents. (And a couple are actually good enough to make you forgive the band for being Canadian!)
Ashley Park is the brainchild of Vancouver’s Terry Miles, a one-man-band kind of guy who plays no fewer than 18 instruments on Town and Country, including the alarmingly named “Seagull Acoustic Guitar.” Trumpeter Kyle Axford, multi-instrumentalists Chris Harris and Rob Leickner, vocalists Kelly Haigh and Greg MacDonald, and drummer Michael White all lend a hand, but this is clearly Miles’ show. Miles has an encyclopedic knowledge of ’60s popwhich has its drawbacks; a couple of the songs on Town and Country came lurching out of my speakers like reanimated corpses disinterred from some elevator-music cemetery. But as often as not, Miles transcends nostalgia to produce songs that sound firmly rooted in the here and now. “Moles,” for example, is a midtempo, organ-driven ditty about history, foreign cars, and, well, moles. I have no idea what Miles is talking about (“Fakin’ you’re walking the street/Along the Red River skyline/The Red Queen said nothing can beat/A German car on the highway”), butunlike a couple of other tunes on the discit’s not going to be mistaken for something by Marvin Hamlisch. “By the Stereo” is a wonderful pop tribute that invokes the British invasion in both its lyrics (“Early in the morning the newspapers said/That the beat groups are back together”) and its restrained but upbeat tempo, which hints at wild parties just around the corner.
Town and Country is a concept album that explores the small-towner’s (Miles hails from Calgary) fascination with the glamour of big-city life. Personally, I’m suspicious of concept albums (why there was no international hue and cry to ban them outright after the nightmare of I Robot, I’ll never know) but to Miles’ credit, he doesn’t shove his concept down our throats, and we’ve mercifully been spared a libretto. The country/city dichotomy is introduced with the sounds of a summer meadow in album opener “Town and Country,” which gives way to the dreadful cocktail-jazz sophistication of “Everyone, Under the Sun.” (“Central Park,” croons Miles, “Oh you know it’s so dangerous.” No kidding; his song just got mugged by the Swingers soundtrack.)
Most of the album’s action takes place in town. Good thing, too, because Miles’ original recipe for country music, illustrated in the CD’s title track, seems to be this: “Take regular song. Stir in one banjo.” “In the Country” would be better titled “In the Studio,” and “It’s Not Too Late” is an embarrassing (but blessedly truncated) “Alice’s Restaurant” cop more evocative of Beverly Sills than The Beverly Hillbillies.
The concept works better when Miles stays well within city limits, where he can employ his flair for snazzy arrangements and mildly barbed lyrics to gently lampoon life among the cosmo set. My own personal favorite is “Lucy & the Bourgeoisie,” which employs vibes and a strummed guitar to evoke the languid intrigues at an upper-crust beach resort (“Take the service elevator to avoid the stairs/Confess the new arrangements to the concierge”).
Miles also demonstrates a knack for drawing sympathetic portraits of wide-eyed provincials who come to conquer the big city. In “Take Your Shoes Off,” for example, Miles uses some really nice sustained organ notes, railway sound effects, and a lulling melody to summon up the mood of a late-night train ride toward a brand-new place.
Miles is a gifted guy working a narrow vein, and I foresee his putting out a long string of cleverly crafted but derivative pop albums, one per year, like little perfumed turds that people more refined than I will scoop up and listen to and cherish. As for me, I’m glad I heard this one, because it means I’ll never have to listen to another.
I don’t know which to praise Ashley Park for more: making a smart pop album or stopping my humiliating slide down the slippery slope that leads to the yawning abyss of easy listening. In the words of e.e. cummings, “There is some shit I will not eat.” I hereby turn in my spoon. Long live Killdozer! CP