The Future That Was
Artemis Records, 2002
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/15/2003
Back when I was in high school, long before the turn of the century -- and yes, ha ha, I mean the 21st - there was this really unique guy. He was clearly smart verging on genius, in all the advanced classes and treated with some awe by many of the teachers. But he was undeniably odd, sitting silently in class for weeks at a time before, out of the blue, piping up with a two-minute dissertation covering five brilliant points that hadn't even occurred to the rest of the class yet. The penetrating nature of his observations made us all uncomfortable, though he seemed to take them in stride, even chuckling sometimes at our startled expressions.
I don't think I went to high school with Josh Joplin. But the possibility, however remote, occurs to me after listening to The Future That Was, because it is just so damned intelligent, and yet so willfully, candidly out there. The only thing I can compare it to is an album the Barenaked Ladies might make with a young, pissed-off Elvis Costello sitting in.
The Josh Joplin Group's 2000 major label debut, Useful Music, was an intriguing introduction to the band, a serious-minded song cycle full of oddball characters and upbeat melodies. Even the radio-friendly single "Camera One," with its beefed-up production and mainstreamed alt-rock guitar crunch, reeked of an intelligence not seen on the pop charts in decades. It's hard not to be cynical about the result, though: perhaps the most thoughtful AND melodic rock single of the year went nowhere. My local modern rock station tried it out for a couple of weeks and then dumped it for extra helpings of Creed and Third Eye Blind (yawn).
The 2002 model of the JJG confronts head-on the conundrum of making non-conformist, daringly literate rock and roll in an era that likes its pop-culture icons dumb and cute - confronts it and says, with a slightly snarky grin, "Whatever." Sure, the kick-off track "Must Be You" offers a pleasantly repetitive chorus and generous harmony vocals, but lines like "Well let the people stare I can't tell them what to do" clue you in that you're dealing with someone just a little different. "The Wonderful Ones" offers an equally melodic base for a bullseye skewering of American celebrity culture ("Everybody knows us, we're the wonderful ones").
But that's just the entree to an album filled with geek-rock as clever and esoteric as any you're ever likely to find. I can't think of any other band that could write a song like "Siddhartha's of Suburbia," an upbeat, piano-based tune that casts suburban materialism as a shallow culture's desperate response to Buddhism's core tenet, the inevitability of human suffering. (No, really. I'm not kidding.) As if to up the ante even further, the JJG follows the philosophical "Siddhartha" with "It's Only Entertainment," a twelve-gauge blast of garage-rock that manages to cram To Kill a Mockingbird, Pat Boone and a penis-envy punchline into the same three-minute diatribe.
Don't let this confuse you, though, for "I am not the only cowboy in this one horse metaphor." Uh, okay. Ridiculously well-rhymed spoken-word verses with a sung chorus supported by a string section and rich harmonies. Gah. Somebody call Shawn Mullins, this guy's out of control! But wait, he's not done yet: "Some people wish they could be like Moses / And get their information from burning bushes / Well I tried but the neighbors complained / I set their lawns aflame."
Okay, so they blew my mind just a little bit. Let's try to regroup here.
The JJG's basic sound is stripped-down, quirky pop-rock, with Joplin's voice clearly the focus. On the instrumental side, Joplin's guitar shares space effectively with Allen Broyles' piano and organ. The rhythm section of Geoff Melkonian (bass) and Eric Taylor (drums) keeps it simple but shows versatility as the group slides easily between steady backbeats and more contemplative tracks like "Listening," "Fire" and the dreamy/sad closer "Wonder Wheel." The JJG is nothing if not musically economical; the majority of these thirteen songs run right around three minutes, yet they all feel complete.
The beauty of Joplin's approach is that there's nothing and no one he's afraid to target with his devastating critiques. In the rocking "Happy at Last," he takes a disarmingly frank look at his own life: "I sound like Michael Stipe and I dream like Carl Jung… And I don't know where I'm going and / I'm running out of cash / I may not be well off but I'm happy at last." (And yes, he often sounds eerily like Stipe. Deal with it.)
Enough blabbering. Here's the essential information: The Future That Was is a brilliant album. That's the only word for it, really, that encompasses its hyperactive wit, its deadpan wisdom, its merciless exposure of flaws within and without. Buy two and share it with a friend -- just make sure they have a sense of humor and a decent encyclopedia.