It seems that most pop musicians these days find a sound that works for them and stick to it. I don't know if it's because that's what their label wants, or because they don't believe it's necessary to keep trying new things if people already like what they are doing. But any time you turn on popular radio it is increasingly difficult to tell one singer from another.
I admit in many cases the policy of it ain't broke don't fix it is a good one. The desktop computer my wife and I have is a great example of that as we bought it in the year 2000, and have only added a better sound card and doubled the RAM. In the same time we've known people who've bought new systems on a regular basis, and watched as they have had to continually replace parts and spend the equivalent of another system in repair costs all because they've insisted on messing around with something that didn't need replacing in the first place.
But that philosophy doesn't apply when it comes to being creative. If you're serious about what you do then you need to be constantly experimenting with new ways of doing it or your work will get stale. When you consider the music business does not encourage risk taking or experimentation due to its dependence on the bottom line for existence, is it any wonder that the history of pop music is dotted with one-hit wonders? Folks who found a winning formula that worked once, but was allowed to go the way of the Dodo once they had been milked for what they could earn.
So when you're looking for examples of experimentation or risk taking in the field of contemporary music you need to look further a field than what you'd normally find on the Billboard top forty or signed to a major label. It used to be that individuals and groups unsigned by major labels, independents, were a source for most of this sound, but even they have been co-opted with the creation of music chart categories like "alternative" or "alt. Rock"
Now they have become just as formulized as any other chart oriented stream of popular music. The majority of the bands, or individuals, have all begun to sound alternative in exactly the same way, and what they call alternative is primarily just a revisiting of musical styles from earlier eras.
So the times when I do find someone willing to experiment are a real treat. When the experimentation works, and they release something interesting, it's a reminder of why rock and roll can be such great music. Such is the case with Johnny Irion's latest release Ex Tempore.
As the title suggests the songs have a wonderful off the cuff feel that gives them a feeling of genuine spontaneity. It's as if you can imagine Johnny and the rest of the musicians in the studio making creative decisions on the spot based on what's just been played prior. From the choice of instruments in some songs, and the arrangements in others, each track contains something that makes it distinctive.
The only time I had heard Irion previously was on his duet album, Expoloration with his wife Sarah-Lee Guthrie. That album was much more along the lines of what I'd come to associate with contemporary folk music since the 1960s. Any expectations I might have carried over from that disc about the sound of this CD were quickly dispelled by the first song.
Although the opening track "Take Care" is not a Rock & Roll song in the traditional sense of the word, it has an edginess distinguishing it from the more melodic songs on Explorations A lot of that was due to the harsh quality in Irions almost falsetto voice. It's very easy to listen to that voice and make comparisons with Neil Young, which admittedly is understandable considering their similarities in pitch, but Johnny has his own distinct expression that upon careful listening distinguishes it from the other.
To be honest, if there were going to be any comparison with another performer or group I'd make while listening to Ex Tempore it would be to Robbie Robertson and The Band. There is more than a hint of the Americana feel to the music on this disc that The Band perfected in its earliest recordings. Perhaps that is a reflection of Irions marrying into the premier folk family in North America and the fact he wrote most of this album while during a stay at the Guthrie family home in rural Massachusetts.
Sarah Lee Guthrie lends vocal support on this disc and it's a pleasure to hear them harmonizing again. As someone else said, and I concur completely, not since Graham Parsons and Emmylou Harris sung together have two voices meshed together so easily. Aside from Sarah Lee there are other standout musicians on this disc who make the music come alive.
From the near psychedelic sound on some songs, complete with swirling Wurlitzer Organ played by Johnny, to haunting melodies augmented by flute, the disc walks that wonderful knife-edge between loose and sloppy without once disintegrating into the latter. Impossible to really pigeonhole the music on this disc, the closest I can come is to say it has a rock and roll feel with a folk sensibility.
In the end, what really matters is that Ex Tempore is a fine example of a musician whose willingness to take chances with his craft has allowed him to produce a collection of music that's intelligent and individual. This is not your standard pop music CD and for a change is a genuine alternative to what everybody else is doing. For that reason alone it's worth a listen, the fact it's damn good is icing on the cake.