Jangle with an angle from New York City.
One definition of an argument that never ends would be, what constitutes ‘good’ music? Maybe a 10-year-old might be enthralled by whatever teen icon was currently making waves, to the extent that all else seems boring. Perhaps a 17-year-old is obsessed with metal or grime, while their parents are into Madchester vibes and their grandparents the Beatles. Is Dylan’s voice worse than Pavarotti’s? Are the Carpenters more interesting than Tom Waits, or vice versa?
So, where does Charlie Kaplan fit into the musical scheme of things? Well, the first thing to say is that his latest album, ‘Country Life In America’, won’t be for everyone. He has a most distinctive vocal style, and as with everything distinctive, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. He has the lightest of tenor voices, that at times sounds like he is struggling to get notes over the line. To his credit though, he turns this to his own advantage. It gives him a sound quite unlike any other, though perhaps a close relation would be Jonathan Richman, sharing that same wide-eyed, disingenuous innocence.
So, opening track ‘I Got It’ sets an immediate marker. Clean electric guitar notes pulse out a steady rhythm, and suddenly Kaplan’s voice opens up, sliding along the verse, reaching uncomfortably deep for the pre-chorus, then leaping high for notes where the altitude seems even a little unsuitable for him; but, and here’s the thing, it seems perfectly congruent for the song and the message he is giving. The weird unseen things that go on in modern life, so inexplicable and bewildering, make it seem like he is desperately reaching for meanings that he doesn’t quite get himself: “Data, these reams of data / feed ‘em to the servers, it’s automatic /….so I told you a lie, that I got it”.
On he goes, dragging us headlong into a world of quirky, precarious unreliability. The title track, for instance, leads off with the words “I got clean from the bottle, bottoming out/ I still don’t know what this song is about…I feel it getting louder / but I can’t hear a thing”.
Musically, there is a distinct jangle, and hints of power pop. As the songs ride by, the music becomes ever more infectious, and our ears tune in to what he is purveying. Perhaps ‘Talkin’ French’ is where it reaches its apotheosis, so catchy, so full of hooks both lyrically and musically, with an absolutely delicious little coda, that somehow comes in the middle of the song, where more conventionally it would be at the end…hugely inventive.
Traces of Americana come through hints of pedal steel and jangly guitars, mid-period Beach Boys harmonic jumps and Velvet Underground musical shifts (albeit in their more melodic moments).
So, ‘Country Life in America’ can only be recommended; Kaplan has created his own quite unique take on the world, and he does so in a very endearing and affectionate way. If there is an underlying caution and uncertainty in that creation, that is surely a suitable response to these times we’re living in; and anyway, it doesn’t get in the way of some feel-good, catchy tunes. Nearly 50 years ago Abba were writing sad songs that sounded like happy songs, and it didn’t do them (or us) any harm. So, welcome to the world of Charlie Kaplan – sun-dappled, full of heady aromas, but with something unsettling hiding just out of sight in the shadows.