I’m going to babble on a bit here about Sean Lennon (and eventually his co-conspirator in artistic crime, Charlotte Kemp Muhl), the pitfalls of celebrity, musical influences, and a nifty new band of sorts. Along the way I hope to try to review the debut album from said new band The Goastt called Midnight Sun which I just picked up recently.
Why am I writing about this now given that the album came out more than a year ago? Well, truth be told, I was holding out until I came across a copy of the album on vinyl. You see, the album appeared in stores on LP only briefly and I didn’t get it right away so I never saw it again in the shops. Since then, I’m guessing, it was mostly only available via the Internet. Yeah, I supposed I could have ordered it, but life being what it is, I tend to like to find these sorts of things out in the brick-and-mortar wilds. It took a trip to the East Coast this past Summer for me to find this wonderful album on LP at a great little record store I came across in Wallingford, Connecticut called Red Scroll Records.
So, that is why this is happening now…
Its been real interesting watching the steadily ascendant career of Sean Lennon. He’s one smart dude for sure, recognizing early on that a certain portion of the music going public would always judge him against his late father’s work. Accordingly, he set out many years ago to carve out his own path. Check the Wiki for a (hopefully accurate) recap on where his travels have taken him.
His second solo album, on Capitol Records, called Friendly Fire, made some big inroads in terms of songwriting but it indeed bordered on that dangerous — but inevitable — career minefield that involved writing and producing rock-pop-flavored songs that sounded even remotely Beatle-influenced.
For most any other musician, it would be easy to get away with that sort of thing, saying simply that one’s music has been heavily influenced by The Beatles, the British Invasion, yada yada.
But, when you are one of the offspring of a Beatle, well then it gets a bit dicier because the public immediate starts making those aforementioned unfair comparisons.
That said, something brilliant started happening over the past five years…. and I am admittedly bending the history timeline with regards to specific dates … but, in short, it seemed like out of nowhere The Flaming Lips started hanging out with Sean and his Mom (ie. Yoko Ono!) and before you knew it there was a new Plastic Ono Band incarnation happening. And then suddenly Sean debuted this new band, The Goastt (aka “Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger” — got that?) and there they were touring with Beck!
Then I heard some of the music and it sounded real mature and interesting… influenced by a lot of psychedelic music that I like from bands such as Pink Floyd and Radiohead and… well…
The thing is, Lennon’s new music didn’t sound immediately Beatle-flavored.
One of the big problems — I think — that Sean’s half-brother Julian had in sustaining his career (in the 1980s) had to do with his first album being produced (albeit brilliantly, but ultimately, wrongly, by Phil Ramone) to sound so much like John Lennon it was downright eerie. He kept it going for one more album and then by the time of his third and later albums, when he started to present his own voice and sound — I remember one tune, “Now You’re in Heaven,” that I initially thought was an 80s Bowie track! — it seemed to alienate some of his fans.
Before you knew it, by the late 1990s, Julian was featured on VH1’s Behind the Music. (Note: his non-major label release Photograph Smile is really solid … and Julian has a new album out that I need to check out one of these days).
So anyhow, back to Julian’s half brother, here we have Sean letting his freak flag fly in a rather grand manner, with epic song structures, soaring harmonies and big spacey guitar solos!
(was that a “gasp!” I heard from the ’90s indie rockers out there?)
And its really cool. There is still some British rock continuity in here, rest assured. But this music takes its cues from a broader melting pot than the Fab Four. I hear echoes of 1970-era Pretty Things, The Move and early ELO, The Kinks, Emitt Rhodes (himself influenced by Sean’s Dad’s equally famous songwriting partner), Squeeze and so many others. There is some of that Vaudevillian, music hall sensibility popping up from time to time that many British pop song writers in the 60s and early 70s toyed around with (from McCartney and Ray Davies to Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood)
Heck, one song (“Don’t Look Back, Orpheus”) even has a Calliope on it which I think I last heard in a pop song on Three Dog Night’s cover of Leo Sayer’s “The Show Must Go On.” “Moth To a Flame” features some gorgeous slide playing that sounds like what might happen if you blended George Harrison and David Gilmour’s slide guitar playing styles together — its a very cool sound.
I think this is probably a good time to talk about Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who is Lennon’s equal partner in this project and together their voices take on a flavor I’ve rarely heard in rock ‘n roll. Most notably, I am reminded at times of classic records by The Kinks, when Ray Davies’ then wife Rasa would sing uncredited harmonies on tracks like “Sunny Afternoon.” And of course, there are those songs where Yoko Ono sang haunting harmonies on John Lennon’s solo works — especially on the highly underrated Mind Games album, which at times some tracks here subtly hint. Charlotte sings lead on some tracks (“Johannesburg”) and she has a lovely voice and sense of phrasing.
]]>There is a fascination biography written by the legendary John Perry Barlow (of Grateful Dead and Electronic Frontier Foundation fame) which talks a lot about Charlotte. Rather than quote it, I’ll encourage you to read it here at this link here. These two have something special going on here, for sure.
Audiophile-y-wise, this album sounds pretty good. I mean, this is a really beautiful record, a noble statement that makes me want to go out and see them play live. The production work by longtime Flaming Lips associate David Fridman is wonderful in a modern psychedelic sort of way. This album doesn’t have the sonic sparkle of, say, Dark Side of the Moon (but what does, really?).
Set your expectations realistically regardless of whether it was made digitally or analog. I think tracks from this would hold up well in a DJ set alongside tracks from The Pretty Things (Parachute-era), early King Crimson and dynamic The Flaming Lips albums such as At War With The Mystics and The Soft Bulletin. So, yeah, this sounds like a record that could have been made in 1969 or 1970 or 1999 or 2005 for that matter.
Timelessness is a good thing, folks…
The CD quality (44.1 kHz, 16-bit) download that comes with the LP sounds fine too for your mobile entertainment needs. Nothing here was hurting my ears, I’ll put it that way, folks. This tiger seems to have tamed some of the oft-inevitable digital edginess.
There is a new EP of The Goastt available on their website and on Amazon called Goastt Stories which I am going to order right away. There is also an EP of acoustic demos available which I plan to explore.
If you like Tame Impala, Beck and Dungen, you’ll probably like this. If you like Pretty Things’ Parachute, you’ll probably like this. If you liked Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother and Meddle, you may well like this. If you like The Zombies, Emitt Rhodes and XTC’s Dukes of Stratosphear, you might well dig this.
And, yeah, if you like post-Revolver era Beatles, you may well like a bunch of this album.
But really, all we are really saying is give Sean a chance. There, I said it.
I’m there. You should be too.