Tuesday, February 5, 2008

CD Review: Banjo Drill's "Music For Humans"

by Dave Schaefer

Creativity is often the mother of reinvention. Bill Jordan, formerly of Black Cat Revival, proves the philosophy with his persona Banjo Drill.

Despite the name, this is an entirely solo effort. After the breakup of BCR in 2006, Jordan chose to focus on things other than joining another band.

“We were a psychotic, dysfunctional, happy family that experienced lots of crazy shit together. When it ended, I couldn't fathom jumping into another relationship like that with new people.” And his new mission was clear: “I started over from scratch and set out to find what it is that I really love about music and what messages I really want to convey.”

And for the most part he succeeds in Banjo Drill’s first effort Music For Humans. A somewhat Beck-like excursion, the CD moves in many directions, but never steers too far from the spacey, robot-love sound that backdrops nearly every track. The creative aspects of the whole are at a high -- something that has the potential of derailing an effort such as this, where art can get in the way of true creativity and end up just creating something odd. Fortunately, Banjo Drill avoids this precarious pitfall and gives us a collection of songs that are storytelling, fun, and often deeper than their surface may imply.

“With Music for Humans, I tried my best not to force anything,” Jordan says. “I knew I wanted to make an album that was fun and could be thrown on at a party. But I also wanted it to have some depth.”

Teetering on the songwriting edge between strange and significance is where Jordan often finds himself. “For me, songs are fleeting things that are constantly swooping around in my head, so I grab whatever I can hold on to. Sometimes it's a lyric, sometimes it's a melody or a bass line or a rhythm. When I'm lucky enough to find the right thing, it lives with me until I become obsessed with it and I can't focus on anything else until I find the other parts that go with it.

“It's kind of like working on a puzzle or molding with clay -- find the right pieces and then massage it until there's a living, breathing thing smiling back at you.”

And smile it does, especially with the opening track “Robot Boy,” which tells the story of an alien robot and his brief quest to save the world with the help of -- you guessed it -- Banjo Drill. Intermixed in the lighthearted lyrics is the deeper tale of a planet in peril and the implied solution of unity.

It’s a positive theme that’s evident throughout the CD, and intentionally so.

“The title, Music for Humans, comes from the idea that our culture seems to be focusing less and less on people as individuals with emotions, ideas, and unique perspectives and more and more on people as commodities, consumers, or political allies or enemies,” Jordan said.

He could’ve easily focused on the negatives with this type of creative endeavor, but chose not to. “I wanted to look at this idea and say, ‘Yeah, some shit sucks, but life's pretty freakin' cool too!’”`

One particular song that exhibits the positive depths that he mentions is “MotherSun.” An enigmatic excursion, the track has an underlying emotion that belies the poetic simplicity of it’s lyrics.

“I struggled with the lyrics for ‘MotherSun’ for a long time,” Jordan told me. “They're probably a little bit abstract to a listener, but for me they represent some deeply personal experiences. Writing it required me to open up more than I had before and remove a veil of protection.

“That's one of my favorite things about writing music,” he continued, “sometimes it requires you to take an honest look at yourself and accept your vulnerabilities. When you do that, you can experience life more openly. At least, that's how it is for me. Sometimes I make peace with myself in the process of making a song.”

This time around, that process included a beat up old acoustic guitar, a Beta 58 vocal mic, a midi controller, a handheld recorder, some shakers, pots and pans, and Garageband on his iMac. Everything but the drums were recorded by Jordan in his spare bedroom. For the beats, he sent MP3s of the songs to his friend, and Noctaluca drummer, Brandon Schlunt in Cincinnati. Using Fruity Loops and live drums recorded via Pro Tools, Schlunt created, in Jordan’s words, “the perfect, tasteful beats.”

An amateur-ish process with a surprisingly professional outcome -- Music For Humans sounds at the same time everything and nothing like the process he describes. It’s a rich recording that lends itself to additional discovery with each listen.

“I have lots of fun making music.” Jordan says. “Hopefully some people will dig it along the way.”

Some people, including myself, already do.

Here’s the song-by-song rundown:

Robot Boy
With a healthy dose of funk rhythms, this track is infectious. I’d rate this song as the most Beck-like -- a clear influence of Banjo Drill -- but it’s too clever and well-written to dismiss it as such too quickly. All the elements work together to create a great opener to Music For Humans.

Back to the Shore
The CD’s best track, this song is a bluesy excursion that goes just where you want it to. I can’t help but picture a Southern, elderly trio, jamming the freeform blues from their rocking chairs and sipping fresh-squeezed lemonade in the hot Louisiana sun. Smooth, cool, refreshing, and digitized.

Waiting for the Aliens
What would happen if Beck collaborated on a song with Neil Diamond and it was produced by Ennio Morricone? “Waiting for the Aliens” would happen, that’s what. This is an intriguing song, part spaghetti western, part 60’s sci-fi and entirely enjoyable.

Pop the Bubble
On most of the tracks on this CD, the layering of sound -- both mechanical and natural -- is effective and appealing. Not so much on this song. The layers don’t quite work as well as the other tunes and instead of being a seamless mesh, it ends up being a distraction. Also, the percussion on this song is too tinny and gets in the way of the flow rather helping it along. However, I have to say that the clever refrain rescues “Pop the Bubble” and ultimately makes it listenable.

This is a well-written, though cryptic, melancholic ballad that captures your attention and keeps it, making you want to at once solve the mysteries of the words while at the same time placing your own meaning into them. This is easily the most organic of any of the tracks -- save for some distracting minor electronic sounds -- and it’s nice to have a bit of a reprieve from the mechanical and dip your toe in the more traditional in the midst of Music For Humans.

Tinfoil Hat
The opening seconds of this song initially turned me off as I quickly judged it as Banjo Drill’s artsy indulgence. However, as the song kicked in, I realized how wrong this judgement turned out to be. It’s actually a grungy, guitar-driven track that has some clever inner workings. Banjo Drill creates a great moody piece that flows effortlessly with the lyrics. But I still don’t like how it starts.

Rock the Radiation
Easily the most poppy of any of the tracks, this 70s-esque song hints at R&B and has some great, seemingly light-hearted lyrics. It’s a fun little number that definitely makes you wish there was a dancefloor nearby.

This is a mood-driven yawner. Though the arrangement is done well, there’s not enough interest musically to keep you listening to the phenomenal lyrical content. I wish the vocals -- which are exceptional -- were wrapped around a better overall song. This is close to being a good track, but just doesn’t quite hit the mark, even though I really want it to.

Battery City
If Banjo Drill wrote and performed a Schoolhouse Rock song, it would sound something like this. Well, except for the lyrics, which aren’t very Saturday-morning. Though I would’ve preferred the stronger “Rock the Radiation” as the closer to the CD, “Battery City” is fitting. It reiterates Banjo Drill’s ability to tell a poetic story that allows the listener to fill in the enigmatic gaps and it shows Jordan’s ability to create music that fits it.

You can purchase Music For Humans at CD Baby: http://cdbaby.com/cd/banjodrill


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reshma M said...

Yeah this is really a nice music, i heard it one of my friend, great composition.

Thank you.....
Reshma M,
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