There are a few things I’ve learned in reviewing music. One is that the quality of an artist is never measured by the size of the press packet. Another is that often my favorite album end up to be bands I had never heard of before. Finally, I have learned to pay special attention to the role of the producer. A producer can make or break an album, and is ultimately in charge of an artists’ fate. Take Modest Mouse’s last release, Good News for People Who Love Bad News. The album was hugely successful, pleasing both long time fans and newcomers, but betraying the organic sound that Isaac Brock and company play live. Benjamin Weikel’s drum mix could never be reproduced in a live atmosphere, and the near perfect harnessing of Brock’s vocals added with multi-tracked backing was completely unlike reality. I don’t mean to digress, but you can see how Dennis Herring was an instrumental part in Modest Mouse’s explosion to a mass audience. But what if a producer was to make his own album?
John Parish has not been the `frontman’ on an album since his days with Automatic Dlamini, over fifteen years ago. Since then, he has played the role of sideman, instrumentalist, and adept producer with the likes of Giant Sand, 16 Horsepower, Sparklehorse, Tracy Chapman, the Eels, and longtime collaborator P.J. Harvery, having produced two of her most successful albums, To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?. There have been, of course, a long line of auteur-producers including other Harvey collaborator Steve Albini and Butch Vig, just to name a few, but Parish has an advantage over most in that he stays below the radar. Rather than putting himself in the spotlight, he has happily stayed in the shadows, helping to craft quality album after quality album, and now it’s his turn.
Once Upon a Little Time has the imprint and residue of all of the work he has shaped in the past, while still remaining true to a new vision. First vocal track “Boxers” sounds like an Eels song backed by P.J. Harvey, yet more inspired by Lou Reed than Neil Young as his voice mimics Edwyn Collins to a degree. One of the ways he combines the past, present and future is in his choice of band members. The consistent band throughout is made up of two Italians and one Parisian (keyboardist Marta Collica, bassist Giorgia Poli, and drummer Jean-Marc Butty), but you’ll also find Portishead’s Adrian Utley, the Bad Seeds’ Hugo Race, and longtime friend Jeremy Hogg making guest appearances. They all combine to support Parish’s folk rock opus, a testament to the man’s abilities, vision and direction.
The aforementioned slow dirge “Boxers,” the joyous folk of “Even Redder than That 1 & 2,” the meditative sing-along “Somebody Else” and the eclectic “Kansas City Electrician” are all standout tracks worthy of repeated listens. Songs like the instrumentals “Saló” and “Stranded” sound like lost pieces of the soundtrack to My Own Private Idaho. Fans of P.J. will enjoy the female backing vocals (which at times seem to be lead) while fans of the Eels will enjoy the odd sounds, piano lines and vocal effects. Yet ultimately, by the end of the album all of that will be forgotten, as Parish ceases to be the producer / collaborator, becoming the artist / auteur. No matter what his role in the future of his own work or of the work of others, I, for one, will be listening intently.
Robyn Hitchcock- Spooked
P.J. Harvey- To Bring You My Love