Projector Head

Josh Joplin Band

Independent release, 1996

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


If Josh Joplin has never written a musical—and it’s impossible to say if he has or hasn’t, since his online presence over the years has typically been more mystifying than illuminating—I think he really should. There is an inherent theatricality to both his singing style and his songs that seems like it would really lend itself to the stage.

This thought occurs a couple of tracks into my first listen to Joplin’s early indie album Projector Head, which I had never heard of before last year, despite it being one of at least five albums that Joplin apparently released independently before Artemis Records snatched up and reissued his sixth, Useful Music in 2001. This was faintly astonishing news for someone who’s considered himself a fan for 20 years, but between Joplin’s penchant for mystery and my own for general cluelessness, here we are.

Projector Head isn’t an album that feels designed to attract label backing; more like the opposite. It’s stubbornly intellectual, sardonic and eccentric in a business that prizes none of those things (okay, maybe a little eccentricity is cool… but only if it comes pre-packaged with hits). What comes through loud and clear is that Joplin has always put artistry first, with little interest in conforming to norms and expectations. While it’s true that the one time he bent that way a little, he scored a #1 AAA hit with “Camera One,” off the aforementioned Useful Music, little evidence exists that he had any desire to repeat the experience.

Projector Head finds Joplin leading a trio with Geoff Melkonian on bass and guitars and Jason Buecker on drums, the former of whom remained a collaborator through Joplin’s subsequent two-album foray with Artemis. Though small in numbers, they make a big noise by layering electric over Joplin’s acoustic in places, though never so much that it distracts from the central focus of these tunes: Jopin’s artful, intense lyrics and instantly memorable voice.

The lyrics on Projector Head in fact often feel as if they were lifted directly from the notebook of either a therapist or an existentialist slam poet, or possibly both:

“Somewhere between feeling and not feeling / I find myself / And I am someone else”
“Life is harder than you ever thought it would be”
“I am not only what you make me”
“Turning and burning and yearning to understand”

His alternately penetrating and inscrutable—but never less than artful—lyrics are supported by upbeat folk-pop/indie rock musical backing, with a somewhat progressive flavor to its sometimes abrupt changes of tempo and feel. Still, the greatest stylistic variable is Joplin’s vocals, which veer from normal singing to speed-rapping to anguished screams within a matter of a few lines, restless and untethered to the point where they come off as a distinctive form of performance art. Joplin doesn’t just sing these songs; he inhabits each one’s narrator like a method actor.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

While the entire album feels of a piece, like a 12-act play, several moments stand out. Opener “10 Feet Small” is a tour de force of alienation, with brooding, skittery drums underpinning a foreboding soliloquy that builds and swerves until it eventually appears to end badly for our narrator: “Looking out my window high above / I am ten feet small / Suddenly I feel and I am alive / And I see me fall, see me fall.”

On “Sleep,” Joplin manages to manifest both calmness and tension in early spoke-sung lines like “This is it, all that I have / Old memories, stored away like photographs,” before the dreamy pre-chorus creeps in and Joplin moves to singing in full voice about not being able to sleep at night. By the end the song has built into a full rock arrangement, soaring to pleasing heights.

“Weebles” finds Joplin—whose distinctions include a voice that often sounds eerily like Michael Stipe—at his Stipe-iest as he navigates a surging melody whose chorus punchline consists of the old toy tag line “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” Sure, yeah, fine, why not? Especially on a song in which his vocal gymnastics become so unhinged near the end that you begin to think of David Byrne rather than that REM guy.

“Get Up” moves from a blue-eyed mumblerap opening to a Byrne-esque spitting-out-the-word rant on the verses before sliding into a hooky chorus. This call to action ultimately finds Joplin urging his audience over a breakdown: “Where there’s war, turn away / Where there’s hatred, turn away / And destruction, turn away / And create something beautiful.” Finally, closer “So Real” channels the same sort of “a life observed” feel as “Camera One” with Joplin declaring that “It’s all so real, like a movie” before commenting dryly that “I think I’ve seen this one before.”

What distinguishes Joplin from other earnest coffeehouse-philosopher types is both the depth of his lyrics—which are meticulously crafted and genuinely poetic—and the commitment of his performances. From the anguished cries that close “Mr. Television” to the wild-eyed-preacher overtones of “Understand” to the 100-proof intensity of “Only,” he leaves nothing on the field, track after track.

Interestingly, the two songs here that feel maybe slightly undercooked by comparison are “Drove,” possibly the most pop-leaning tune here, and the somber self-examination “I’ve Changed.” The latter would reappear in not one but two new versions on Useful Music, as if to deliver proof of its opening line: “I’ve wanted / Perfection / From every song I’ve ever sung.”

Projector Head showcases an artist still in the process of both defining and refining his voice, but already well on his way, and eager to take his audience along for the ride. As much as I might have wished for greater commercial success for Joplin—who’s mostly abandoned both music and his stage name for independent film production these days—I have a sneaking suspicion that he harbors no regrets. It seems that’s often how it is when you have an artistic vision so distinct and powerfully realized that any compromise is bound to feel like failure. No compromises whatsoever were made here, and that’s a significant part of what makes Projector Head as compelling a listen as it is.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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