Saturday, May 7, 2011

Michael Fremer Album Review

Wretches & Jabberers
(new release)

Various Artists
Rumor Mill Records 2 180g LPs/CD
Produced by: J. Ralph
Engineered by: J. Ralph
Mixed by: J.Ralph
Mastered by: Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering (lacquer cut by Bernie Grundman)
Co-produced by: Arthur Pingrey




Soundtrack to Autism Documentary Sounds Universal Themes
by Michael Fremer
April 01, 2011

The documentary film “Wretches and Jabberers” follows the world traveling adventures of two middle-aged autistic men. One grew to adulthood in a mental institution, the other in an adult disability center.

Misdiagnosed as children because of their inability to speak, only when the two learned to communicate by typing did they join the conversation.

While this exquisitely recorded and packaged double LP set is ostensibly the soundtrack to the movie, it feels more like a parallel “high concept” project that resembles one of Hal Wilner’s tribute albums.

The songs, written by producer, engineer, mixer and arranger J. Ralph or in some cases in collaboration with the artists who sing them, are first person accounts of feelings, thoughts and experiences these two men endured breaking through the barriers of their condition, but they will touch deeply even the most outgoing and loquacious listener.

The search for validation, respect and dignity is a universal theme that transcends the very personal efforts of the two men starring in Gerardine Wurzburg’s film and that’s what will resonate as you listen, but of course for those with autism or who have someone autistic in their family it will touch the core.

Mr. Ralphs has managed to attract an impressive group of collaborators including Norah Jones, Carly Simon, Stephen Stills, Ben Harper, Bob Weir, Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), Judy Collins, Bonnie Bramlett, Devendra Banhart and Martin Carthy.

Perhaps you consider it ironic that some of the world’s best communicators have been asked to contribute songs about struggling to be heard.

That contradiction didn’t escape Mr. Ralph’s attention. So, in a somewhat daring gambit, he asked the artists to run through the songs only until they could just perform them. At that point he recorded, getting fresh, unpolished but intensely deep performances.

That some of the bigger stars would allow themselves to be heard at a most vulnerable and exposed moment in artistic expression—before the polish goes on—is a testament to their trust in Mr. Ralph’s vision and of course to their desire to contribute something both to the movie and to its mission of making people more aware of autism and the struggles of those afflicted.

Working in a basic folk, folk/rock, folk/pop vein, Ralph has written or co-written a series of short, intimate, engagingly tuneful songs with strong, attractive melodies enhanced by impeccable arrangements.

The album opens with Mr. Ralph singing “The Reason Why.” If the song sounds like something from Tea For the Tillerman and Ralph sounds sort of like Cat Stevens, that’s because the tune was written for him but for one reason or another he was unable to perform it.

Norah Jones is up next with another Ralph composition and again, this guy’s ability to channel an artist’s melodic and stylistic sensibilities is uncanny. You’ll think it’s a gospely Jones composition. The bass/drums/piano backdrop suits perfectly and if you’re not yet hooked, Carly Simon’s “The Letter,” with lyrics by Ralph and Simon should seal the deal.

Simon’s vocal performance is direct and pure and here the “quick read and record” technique works perfectly. The haunting melody is accompanied by Ralph’s wistful, perfectly conceived marimba patch.

Ben Harper sounds more like Antony on “More Like You” (than you’ll ever know) —a plea for understanding that skirts but does not descend into preciousness. A pedal steel guitar floats in an impossibly distant landscape fronted by guitar, bass and piano.

The unique quiverings of Antony are up next in “Killingly Hard,” backed by Ralph on classical guitar and Danny Bensi on cello. The singer voices the demands of the two men for their dignity but of course the song has universal appeal.

Vashti Bunyan, the more recently re-discovered ‘60s British folk singer turns in a pristine vocal performance on “Flower and the Lion” that’s an appropriately nostalgic reminiscence ending with the line “I keep a locket in my pocket with a picture of a time forgotten. You know the one, we were both there.”

The insistent, uptempo Stills/Ralph collaboration sounds surprisingly like something Neil Young might have produced, with lines like “I want my own kingdom beyond this prison of silence I live in alone.”

Most surprising are the back to back contributions by Scarlett Johansson and Vincent Gallo, better know from their work in movies, though of course Gallo has been a fine artist and did have a rap/punk musical career before moving to film. Like producer/songwriter/lyricist/arranger/recording engineer Ralph, he’s a 21st century renaissance man.

Johansson’s dreamy, raspy-edged tone on “One Whole Hour” is as compelling and weighty as any of the veterans’ contributions. Gallo, close-miked and smartly processed to produce a feeling of being suspended between waking and sleep delivers a short but riveting reverie.

It’s really unfair to give any of the performers short shrift—from Judy Collins’s soaring vocal (she’s still got that voice) to David Garza’s pristine falsetto, also tastefully processed, but you’ll just have to discover the others fully on your own.

However, I couldn’t close the musical description without relating the story Mr. Ralph told me about Nic Jones. If you are unfamiliar, he’s a ‘60s folk singer/guitarist who greatly influenced Nick Drake.

You’ll hear that immediately on “Pretty Words Lie,” in both the vocals and the eerie way Ralph lays down the guitar part. It too will remind you of Drake.

Unfortunately, Jones was seriously injured in a career-ending car accident, but Ralph really wanted him for the record so he contacted Jones’s wife and made his pitch.

She was not very encouraging and told him he was welcome to try but that the odds were not great and that he should expect to be summarily shown the door despite the great distance traveled.

Ralph took the chance and Jones was so enthused, he was willing to travel to Abbey Road to record his performance. So here’s a rare Nic Jones performance to add to the richness of this record.

The album winds down elegantly with tracks by British folk veteran Martin Carthy, his Irish counterpart Paul Brady, and finally one from the Mexican singer Lila Downs followed by a reprise by alt-rocker Leah Siegel of “Birdsong” covered by Collins earlier in the set.

Musically, this is a remarkable set of performances with an equally impressive set of songs. Mr. Ralph’s melodic sensibility and the diversity of ideas he summons forth and expresses within a relatively basic folk genre make it difficult to believe that almost every song came from a single individual, though of course Mr. Ralph would be the first to point out the contributions made by a team of musicians and other collaborators.

On top of that achievement is the superb recording quality for which, the young Mr. Ralph is also responsible. The involvement of McIntosh, which provided monitoring gear as well as funding for the limited CD and vinyl production was surely helpful.

The sound is pristine, three-dimensional, dynamic and in every good sense of the “audiophile quality.” The arrangements rely upon the audio to convey musical ideas, with careful placement of instruments in the mixes. Every track is an aural as well as musical treat. Bob Ludwig mastered the 96/24 recordings and Bernie Grundman cut the lacquers plated and pressed at RTI. The vinyl sounds much more life-like than the somewhat opaque-sounding CD. It’s not even close.The vinyl limited edition is a treasure you should not pass on.

April is Autism Awareness month. I can’t think of a more direct and intimate way to become aware of this mysteriously growing problem than listening to this hauntingly beautiful album. You’ll surely return to it often for both the music and the sound.

Thanks to Michael over at  for the exclusive rights to reprint this material. Stop by for more reviews and features.

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