Quick and dirty this week. I was going to do a year-end roundup of all the stuff I didn’t get to, including De La Soul and Butterfly Jones, but the hell with that. I’m running on fumes, my head is killing me, and I have the beginnings of a monster of a sore throat. There’s an ocean of dead space in January when nothing, and I mean nothing, hits record stores, so we’ll play catch-up then. I have just enough energy tonight to review one disc, and this one’s something special, so let’s get to it, ‘kay?
I discovered Richard Julian by accident, which is always the best way.
As most regular readers know, I worked for a music magazine for the second half of the ‘90s, and at that job I got literally hundreds of free CDs a year from bands and artists I’d never previously heard of. I made it a point to listen to all of them, and not just because it was my job. I knew that somewhere in that pile of low-budget dreck I would find an artist or two to cherish, one I might never discover if I let the opportunity slip away.
Late in 1997, after spending countless hours of my life that I can’t get back sifting through one badly recorded grunge rip-off after another, I found one. Blackbird Records, which I think has subsequently gone out of business, sent me a nondescript self-titled record by a guy named Richard Julian, and from the first horn-driven strains of “Sick Sick Love,” I was sold. The rest of the album was even better . To name a few, “Living With Ramona” is a twisty slice of life with wit and heart, “You and the Roaches and Me” is one of the coolest acoustic rave-ups I’ve ever heard, “Siberia” shimmies and shakes on Julian’s accomplished falsetto, “Bottom of the Sea” is a windy pop epic, and “Charlie Lewis” hurts like the most honest songs always do, cutting to the core of everything you are with simplicity and raw strength.
Richard Julian is a rarity – a perfectly produced acoustic troubadour album with not one bad song. I shudder to think how much money Julian lost on it, and how much more he lost on the spectacular follow-up, Smash Palace, the next year. Smash Palace is a huge production, littered with electronic-sounding beats and strange percussion, all in service of 16 great songs. “The Restless Sea” glides along on a percolating wave of clang and clatter, “Pussycat” is a jazzy romp, “Sleepin’ In’ is simply gorgeous, and “Old Lovers” builds its winsome melody to a pair of fabulous climaxes. Moreover, songs like “Broken Watch” and “Love Is the Only War” revealed a wrist-breaking fury not heard on the debut. While it takes time to sink in, Smash Palace is ultimately a better album than the first one.
So it seemed Julian was on a roll, and then… he disappeared. No website, no record company, no nothing. Still, even the perennially unproductive Marc Cohn managed a third album, so I held out hope.
I came across Richard Julian’s third album much the same way I came across his first: by accident. I stumbled onto his website one afternoon, and it was like getting a letter from a friend you had thought long dead. I should point out that Julian’s website is hilarious – on one page, there’s a picture of his cat Brownie, with a pleading message beneath it, to the effect of: “Please buy a CD so that Richard can feed me.” Well, I’m a sucker for hungry animals, so I did.
Good Life, Richard Julian’s third disc, is as remarkably different from his second as his second was from his first. While Smash Palace constructed intricate sound puzzles, Good Life is as intimate as a living room concert performed just for you. The focus is squarely on Julian’s acoustic guitar and voice this time, and the range of moods he traverses with little accompaniment is diverse and impressive. Good Life is a stripped-sown singer/songwriter album in the best senses of that term.
For the first time, Julian opens with a gentle number, albeit one with a subtle bite. “Please Rene, Not Now” is a sweet portrait of tough love, set to a lovely acoustic melody. It sets the tone for the album, which often disguises its sarcastic, jaded viewpoint in lilting instrumentation. No less than Randy Newman – Randy Fucking Newman – has called Julian “one of the best songwriters and record makers I’ve heard in a long time,” and you can hear Newman’s influence in quietly angry songs like “Your Friend John” and deeply ironic jaunts like the title track.
Julian has grown as a songwriter here by leaps and bounds. “So Damn Beautiful” is a delightful portrayal of lovers who can’t help but be together, “The Wrong Bus” is a captivating bit of stream-of-consciousness storytelling, and “Everything’s Cool” is nostalgic pop personified. “Amy” treads into Elliott Smith territory with its falsetto vocals and windy melody, and he pulls it off effortlessly.
The most striking thing about Good Life is the real self-deprecating bite some of the lyrics possess. “Trick Candle” ends with the following couplet: “A real man would have stayed in bed/Good thing you called me instead.” “Ragged Point” is all about a car crash, and its chorus reads, “If it should happen suddenly, it might as well,” set to a hummable pop melody. (It’s the kind of sweetly disguised fatalism that lightweights like Freedy Johnston can only dream about.) “Florida” seems like a dig at Jimmy Buffett, and it is, but it’s also a shifty-eyed portrait of a traveling musician “caught in the bungle of a promising career.” Most effectively, the mostly-spoken piece “Your Friend John” finds Julian shifting genders to play a nagging, jealous girlfriend. This song has an arresting turnabout of an ending that would make Randy Newman even prouder.
Good Life will hopefully see a national release on Julian’s own My Good Man Records in 2002. For now, though, you can log onto www.richardjulianmusic.com and buy all three of his records. The money, of course, goes directly to Julian when you do that, and assuming he’s not overstating the financial desperation of his website, such a gesture would likely be appreciated. How Fred Durst can rake in billions for repeatedly coming up with minor variations on “I’m pissed off” while an honest, lyrical songwriter like Richard Julian can remain an unknown is beyond me. If it’s true that it’s the music that matters, though, then Good Life matters as much as any record I’ve heard this year.
Next week, the best Year-End Top 10 List in many a moon.
See you in line Tuesday Morning.