Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Greg Ashley - Painted Garden (another point for Birdman)

The difference between solo record Medicine Fuck Dream and a release by one of his bands, either the (late) Mirrors, the (very late) Strate Coats, or the Gris Gris, is that the weakness of Greg Ashley’s singing voice wasn’t too apparent until the solo record had arrived. His bands really were and are his projects, but without the protection of added instruments and distortion to give him leeway and a stronger foundation on which to set his voice, Ashley revealed a tone high and young, his usual feedback-weighted scream giving way to a voice that practically hovered above a cry.

Medicine Fuck Dream was a shy folk affair that floated by; the swirling guitars and shimmying drums behind his vocal freak-out on every other album were now gone. There was really only one standout pop song on the album, “Apple Pie and Genocide,” a stomp that made it onto Birdman’s label sampler (apparently they, too, thought this was the only standout). But there was a long, slow, old bluesy vibe throughout the album that balanced out Ashley’s signature stoner vibe – “I Said, ‘These Are Lonely Days’” featured a boyish falsetto closer to the moan of Elizabeth Cotten than any of Ashley’s (young 20-something) peers would attempt, just as “She” and “Legs Coca-Cola” had the Brian Jonestown Massacre-style drone that you might find on a Gris Gris record. Live, Ashley sits in a chair and hovers over his guitar for protection, building an invisible wall around him – even when doing the psych-rock thing with the Gris Gris. So Medicine Fuck Dream wasn’t far off in sound from what Ashley looks like in action, even if that sound didn’t show off his full potential.

Four years have passed since that first solo experiment, and Painted Garden picks up not where Medicine Fuck Dream left off, but where each of his projects left off, and then some. It’s inconsistent but easier to latch onto, is less of a sort of “bedroom project” and has a cleaner quality. It seems Ashley has been inspired by all sorts since the last Gris Gris record came out two years ago, and he’s been itching to try anything he can.

“Song From Limestone County,” the eight-plus minutes of slowly lurking, dramatic buildup that open the album, acts as the introductory announcement for what is to come. What does come is an immediate transition into “Won’t Be Long,” an old blues-style number with stoic vocals and a recurring, hypnotic riff that ensures the listener a chance to sink into its rhythm. It’s also the only song on the album that would easily fit in with Ashley’s old work on Medicine Fuck Dream; hereafter, we’re treated to a lush arrangement that could battle Martin Denny's "Quiet Village" (“Sailing with Bobby,” also a female duet), and a jazzy lounge tune (“Fisher King”), which is more “pop” than anything Ashley’s done before.

The dreamy and downer ballads – one and the same, depending on your life outlook – could easily mesh into any Mirrors or Gris Gris album. “Room 33” touches Mirrors territory while “Caroline and the Orange Tree” starts off with around two minutes of spaced-out feedback and neglects to build up into a rock adventure. How very Gris Gris! Meanwhile, “Medication #5” is just as lazy a ballad as it is a continuation of “Medication #4” from the Gris Gris’ For the Season. Ashley goes all over the place here, but he keeps things from getting boring with such a drastic mix-up, even if the scattered style format is a bit disorganized.

A worthwhile addition to the quickly-expanding Greg Ashley library. Now, if you’d have a listen to “Fisher King” and explain how, exactly, cocaine typically behaves…

Greg Ashley on MySpace (stream songs, etc.)
Buy Painted Garden via Birdman Records

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