Sheridan Square / Artemis Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/15/2002
In an occurrence that's grown as rare as a solar eclipse, I actually became interested in this band because of a song I heard on the radio. Yes, that's right, for some inexplicable reason, in a feat unlikely to be duplicated any time soon, a local radio station here in Sacramento actually played NEW music from an UNKNOWN band. I'm amazed the station staff wasn't fired on the spot.
Of course, it wasn't entirely new, since the song took so long to get even the meager amount of attention it has from program directors across the country. The track was "Camera One," and it's a great intro to the Josh Joplin Group, with a unique point of view, keenly observant lyrics, a memorable melody and nice crunch on the guitars. In other words, a winner, if only it wasn't much too intelligent for modern rock radio.
The test for me was to see if the rest of the album held up as well, or if the band was either (a) a one-hit wonder, or (b) a one-note group with no versatility. Good news, folks: these guys know what they're doing. Taken as a whole, this album constitutes the most literate, diverse batch of folk-based alt-rock to come down the pike in quite a while.
A couple of favorite tracks, "Gravity" and "Trailways," explore heavy personal issues (coping with failure, and starting over again afterwards) with insight and a fiction writer's attention to detail. As serious as Joplin can get with his lyrics, though, the music is mostly upbeat, and the lyrics betray a certain dry wit ("Everybody falls / In small degrees / That's gravity"). Overall, the full-band, rootsy arrangements complement rather than diminish the potency of Joplin's messages.
Still, it's clear the label demanded more than just smart, well-crafted music from the Group. Of the twelve tracks on this disc (plus one alternate take), nine were produced by fellow folk-turned-alt-rocker Shawn Mullins, and one by Joplin with keyboard player Allen Broyles. These tracks are clean, and spare, and engaging, and let's face it, probably too subtle to have much real hope of getting airplay. Thus, the remaining two tracks ("Camera One" and the opening "Matter") get fattened-up guitar sounds and crystal-clear production courtesy of producer Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) and mix-master Tom Lord-Alge. Funny thing is, even mainstreaming these songs can't undermine their basic appeal: they're actually ABOUT something, and have something real to say.
In many cases, what Joplin has to say is that being human is hard. We screw up a lot ("Human"), and sometimes demand too much from each other and ourselves ("I've Changed"). But the potential is always there; "dreams are not lost" ("Matter"). What seems to fascinate Joplin particularly, though, is how Hollywood can warp those dreams into unfulfillable fantasies -- the essence of "Camera One" and the bubbly yet dark-edged hip-hop excursion "Superstar."
Throw in a couple of more thematic heavyweights ("Who's Afraid Of Thomas Wolfe?" about - surprise - going home again, and "Phil Ochs," an ode to one of the great lost souls of the 60s folk-rock scene) and you've got an album with way too much literary heft for most radio programmers to want to touch it. Which is their loss, but shouldn't be yours. This is a terrific debut, and shouldn't be missed by anyone who enjoys alt-rock music that dares to be thoughtful.
(A quick footnote for REM fans: Joplin is also, on several of these tracks, a dead ringer vocally for Michael Stipe. One more reason to pick up the disc…)