By Ed Bumgardner
Vel Indica, Turn Off Your Devices, self released.
Vel Indica’s debut album, Turn Off Your Devices, is a surprisingly welcome departure from the contemporary norm in which albums are less unified statements of creativity and vision than cobbled collections of derivative, disposable market-driven songs.
In the course of 11 largely remarkable songs, this trio from Winston-Salem, led by singer, songwriter and guitarist Patrick Ferguson, thwarts the exogenous nature of mod pop to embrace and extoll the fading virtues of musical individuality.
Not that there are not extant musical influences – from the soulful sugar-and-spike dynamism of Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers) and the lyrical impressionism of Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe to Mike Scott (The Waterboys), Neutral Milk Hotel and the fearless ambient adventurism of Thom Yorke.
Happily, influences never overwhelm, never consume; rather they work as touchstones that Ferguson dissects, fuses and molds to sustain a distinctly personal vision that treats each song, not as personal manifesto, but as pieces of an elliptical whole.
The sustaining ebb and flow and the seductive mood of these meticulous songs takes the listener on a journey in which the beauty and power of uncluttered ambient arrangements mates with the mystery of lyrics rife with abstract imagery and dense metaphor to create a free-flowing environment that uplifts and captivates the soul and sweeps the imagination into overdrive.
Drummer Karrie Sheehan and bassist Ken Simonds play with a painterly touch, precisely propelling and caressing the arrangements in ways that add dimension and color without clutter and distraction. The ambient touches added by Ferguson and producer and supplemental keyboardist Doug Davis – save the woefully cliched children’s chorus on the otherwise epic “Roman Candle” – cast subliminal spells that lend pillowy contrast to Ferguson’s singing, which can soar from muted interior reflection to soul-purging storms of emotional release.
There are some mild missteps: Ferguson’s lyrics occasionally teeter on the brink of precociousness, and the overtly Dylanesque ”A Modern Balaam,” while a fine song, is such a jarring stylistic departure that it briefly shatters the flow of what came before it. That said, it is hard to imagine a more captivating series of songs than “Atria,” “Submarine Down,” “Oh Wyoming” and “For Soon We Will Be Airborne” – as an alluring grouping of perfectly written, arranged and performed songs as has ever been put on album.
Turn Off Your Devices is a trip worth taking, a spellbinding tour of ambitious dreams and realized musical possibilities that deserves to be heard far beyond a regional audience.
It really is that good.
Doug Davis & The Solid Citizens, A Pageant Of Gold, self-released.
For the past 20 years, the multifaceted Doug Davis has been an impossible-to-miss musical presence in Winston-Salem. He leads several popular bands that woo and serve a vast array of musical tastes. He runs a recording studio where he towers as one of the best producers in the state (his productions for Vel Indica and Lee Terry and The Near Strangers are, simply, as good as it gets).
And Davis has recorded and released several albums, all defined by the solid songwriting, meticulous playing and sterling production that is Davis’ calling card.
That said, it is hard, at least from a musical vantage, to get a handle on exactly WHO Doug Davis is.
Davis last album, Penny Brown Penny, seemed a defining collection of typically strong Davis songs – power-pop melodic, chock-full of sticky sing-along choruses, but imbued with a rough-and-tumble knockabout edge that well-served Davis’ ability to testify with the natural vocal power and soul of a Steve Marriott or a Chris Robinson.
By contrast, A Pageant of Gold, a new six-song EP by Davis and The Solid Citizens – his latest vehicle to perform his songs – leaves the longtime listener appreciative … but a bit confused.
Don’t misunderstand – it’s a good, solid disc, defined by educated songwriting; precise, solid playing and the sort of solid sonic wallop generally found only on big-budget productions by major-label acts.
It is …. solid. Too solid.
The general impression is that of a veteran songwriter looking for a commercial avenue to soar. Gone are the pop tinges that have long been Davis’ stock in trade. Such newly minted Americana songs as the Springsteen-like “June Parade” or “The Great Deluge” sound great, boast all the right compositional and musical moves, yet something is ….missing.
It certainly doesn’t help that Davis has decided to sing in a mannered rootsy drawl. Nor is it hard to ignore the fact that the playing – beyond some meaty, soaring solos – rarely shoots sparks.
Only on the disc’s two rock-leaning songs – “Midnight Moan” and the genuinely sweat-soaked “Raining On Your Own Parade” – does the band come alive and the performances sound believable.
In all, Pageants Of Gold is a bit like The Rolling Stones’ albums of the past 20 years – it sounds great, and it is hard to argue with the quality of the performances and the writing.
But once the initial rush of fresh discovery is over, it is hard to remember anything about what one has just heard.
In the end, Pageants Of Gold, though a fine recording, filled with fine playing, is perhaps best appreciated as a noble experiment.
Finding one’s voice in public is rarely hard to do.
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