Things We Do To Keep Ourselves Intact
Jon Brion's weekly live show at the shockingly small restaurant (it's a stretch to call it a club) Largo in Los Angeles is kind of legendary. It's just him, a wide array of instruments, a looping system, and a stage. You can book a reservation months in advance to sit and have dinner while he plays, or you could stand outside for an hour or two hoping to get a standing-room spot where servers carrying trays of food will ask you to crowd closer to the bar. Brion plays original tunes and brilliantly reimagined covers, which he often performs spontaneously from audience requests. The night I was fortunate enough to attend, he played "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" with one hand chording on an upright piano and the other controlling a vocoder, creating a robotic rendition of the song that had way more soul than any song with the word "robotic" in the description should ever reasonably have. He also killed two audience request birds with one stone by flawlessly transferring Bowie's "Heroes" to the basstwang style of Johnny Cash. A few minutes later, he combined the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" with Prince's "Kiss" in such an imaginative and effective way that I burst out laughing.
The covers stole the show. I walked out of the club proclaiming to my friends that Brion was a genius. I still believe that, but I now have even more proof: his lone solo album, Meaningless (2001). There's nothing gimmicky about the album: it's just eleven pop songs. It's hard to really convince someone that an album is brilliant without their ever hearing it, but damnit, I'm gonna try.
Meaningless starts, appropriately enough, with a song called "Gotta Start Somewhere." "I might not have anything to offer you," Brion sings. "I might not have anything to say that's new / But you've gotta start somewhere." The song starts the album perfectly, and leads into the following track, the standout "I Believe She's Lying," with its absurdly fantastic sped-up drum beat pushing the tempo but never losing the focus on the wonderful melodies that are all over this album. The set calms down but never loses momentum in the second half, ending with a slowed, piano-based seven-and-a-half minute cover of Cheap Trick's "Voices," where Brion modifies the already superb harmonies of the original to emphasize the creepiness of the lyrics. You know how you can hear any Beatles song, like, once or twice, and then you'll know the melody for the rest of your life? How every note they sing or play sounds in its right place? This album is like that.
Now, bear with me for a minute: the title track of the album is about being constantly reminded of your ex by various stupid, meaningless things you saw together. But naming the album Meaningless seems to imply either an inferiority complex or a pessimistic analysis of the state of the art. Are these songs meaningless? Is pop music? Does it matter that Brion might not have anything to say that's new? A good pop song is hard to find these days, especially compared to the heroes of the '60s and '70s pop/rock heyday by which Brion is clearly inspired. But he's created a, dare I say it, meaningful set of tunes worthy to be placed among the great albums of that Golden Age.