Tuesday, June 22, 2010

John Cunningham: 1998-2002

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John Cunningham


Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Ashmont

Few artists who work under the auspices of a label can rightly claim to toil in anonymity in this ultra-information age. Although some musicians remain unknown for a reason - they're excruciatingly awful - it's now far easier to at least find an audience, with a little bit of critical buzz and blogosphere hyperbole sometimes enough to turn a bedroom-tapes troubadour into a star (by indie standards, at least). Those quaint days of finding a good band that very few other people have actually heard of are increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

But music webzines and a seemingly infinite number of blogs haven't quite managed to eliminate the concept of the obscure artist entirely. Such is the case with John Cunningham, a British musician whom since 1989 has released a number of critically-celebrated albums that have been commercially ignored in both his homeland and in the United States. Cunningham sings in a voice that falls somewhere between Robert Wyatt and 1990s-period Elvis Costello and has an ability to capture the types of narrative details that make a song meaningful. He supports this voice with a baroque/chamber-pop style that is also sprinkled with elements of jazz and classical music, acknowledging the music that influenced him while also steering it in unpredictable directions. Such qualities usually make listeners take notice, yet for whatever reason notoriety has eluded the musician. It would be an exaggeration to say that Cunningham has a cult following in this country.

Here's hoping 1998-2002 corrects that. This compilation collects the musician's two strongest and most representative albums - Homeless House and Happy-Go-Unlucky - along with one bonus track onto a single disc, providing a perfect snapshot of Cunningham's music at its peak. Homeless House is a masterpiece, containing eight melodic songs of plainly-sung sadness that look to the past with a mixture of regret and disappointment and are immediately accessible and altogether absorbing. Its songs are mood pieces at their most expressive, leaning heavily towards the melancholic and mournful. These moods reveal themselves in a number of ways, whether it's in the acoustic guitar strums that open both "Public Information Song" and "Imitation Time," in the swaying horns and keyboards throughout the record or in how Cunningham delivers heavy lines - "Memories fade like rainfall after snow," "The frozen sky breaks at the edges," "Summertime was never mine" - with an unadorned clarity that gives his lyrics their edge.

If Happy-Go-Unlucky isn't as mesmerizing, it's only by a small margin. Far more ornate than Homeless House, it sporadically feels overly indebted to groups like the Beatles and Fairport Convention and consequently doesn't sound as unique or timeless as the masterwork that preceded it. Its differences from Homeless House are nevertheless striking, especially in the way Cunningham enunciates more clearly and how the songs more consistently rely on horns and organ as their backbone. It's also a brighter and at times more optimistic record, though that sound is deceptive, as the sentiments of "Losing Myself Too," "Way to Go" and "Take Your Time" sharply contrast with their saturated pop arrangements. It's a good album whose shimmer and spark complement Cunningham's voice well; its main sin is that it followed Cunningham's most focused and expertly executed work.

Occasionally even an innovative artist like John Cunningham slips through the commercial cracks, even at a modest indie level. 1998-2002 may or may not bring the musician the stateside recognition that has thus far missed him, but it does at least make his two best albums readily available to anyone interested in hearing them. Those who are already familiar with Cunningham's music know what makes Homeless House and Happy-Go-Unlucky so endearing: both are stellar efforts that pack an emotional punch and that deserve to be heard, regardless of how they've been criminally overlooked in the past.

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