For People Like Us
Bonavox Records, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/05/2011
“Art is really a business we disguise as something pure”
– “A Man For Others” by Bryan Master
It’s funny, after spending 40 years listening to music and 15 writing about it, to finally understand what people mean by “the LA sound.” I never really got it, never really heard what other writers heard when they used that phrase. Ironically enough, it became fully apparent to me at last when I listened to New York ex-pat Bryan Master’s debut as a Los Anlgeles-based recording artist, For People Like Us.
His 2003 album Lost At Sea and 2004 EP Incommunicado were great examples of thinking-man’s pop-rock, clever and catchy, with roots in folk music but an appealing polish to them. On 2011’s For People Like Us, Master both chronicles his adventures in the brave new world of SoCal and in some sense goes native, with an album that feels both jaded and sunsplashed, as well as significantly influenced by that silky, sophisticated, warm-yet-slick LA sound.
Master clearly found a sympathetic ear in producer Evan Frankfort, who plays multiple instruments on every track and contributes a song of his own (the poppiest cut here, “Born Out Of The Breakdown”). The album also features a dusting of LA-area musical luminaries in the persons of Rami Jaffee (Wallflowers), Liz Phair and Jordan Zevon. Frankfort has worked with Phair and Zevon in the past, but Jaffee is a holdover from Lost At Sea and also somewhat of the musical MVP of this album, adding evocative organ and synth work to eight of its 12 tracks. All of these connections actually become part of the thematic backdrop of the album itself, which more often than not finds Master chronicling—acerbically—his own path within the brutally Darwinist LA music scene.
The curtain goes up with the thrumming opening chords of the title track, a sturdy yet layered anthem with a nice build and strong hook. The arrangement is particularly effective, building with hammering chords, then falling back to highlight organ and drums at just the right moments. Vocally, Master often reminds of Shawn Mullins on this, the strongest cut on the album and an eminently worthy kick-off.
From there, Master dives headlong into commentary on the LA music scene. “A Man For Others” contrasts altruism with cynicism, adding violin to the mix to emphasize the spaciousness of the arrangement. The dreamy “All The Way To The Top” and the edgy, tart “Lost Angeles (Joey’s Song)” similarly flay the blind ambitions and dubious morality of those “in the business.” Even when Master is most likely talking about something else—“Karmacide” is, after all, a rerecording of a song first issued on 2004’s Incommunicado—the theme of puncturing shallow uber-hipness fits in with the character of the rest of the material. In the same vein, Master proclaims “I have smelled success—and all of its lies” on “Let Me Come In,” an otherwise welcoming mid-tempo duet with Phair.
Zevon’s guest shot follows with “An Irish Goodbye,” a heartfelt number featuring acoustic, violin and accordion whose sincerity offers a break from the more jaded, sardonic songs surrounding it. It’s a virtual cleansing breath ahead of “Lost Angeles” and the even darker “Independence Day,” a catalog of American moral failings from drug addiction to compassion fatigue to war mongering, though Jaffee’s organ is the true star of the track.
The final quarter of the album turns quieter and, if anything, more prototypically LA in terms of sound. “Paddle Out” entices with a silky melody that lulls you before the huge chorus, as Jaffe puts in another strong turn on a song about people who are perhaps figuratively, perhaps literally lost at sea. The inspirational “Wake Up” shows a strong Brian Wilson influence with its spacious production, bells and full background vocals featuring former Master compadre Don McCloskey. The album closes on a wistful, nostalgic note, as Master intones “What I wouldn’t give to go back” over a gentle piano melody. The orchestra that breaks in toward the end of “A Pocketful Of Dreams” feels like an unnecessary adornment, but the song nonetheless offers a finish that’s both quiet and strong.
One thing that occasionally trips me up as a listener is Master’s unusual approach to composition. He tends to write in extended phrases that sometimes force him into awkward phrasings as he extends or contracts syllables to fit the words to the melody. It’s a minor quibble, though, on a very enjoyable and accomplished album.
Master’s adventures on the Left Coast have clearly challenged him both personally and musically, and while he’s obviously had some unpleasant experiences navigating the music biz, the album that he forged from these travails is an excellent piece of work. Polished yet warm, sharp-tongued yet heartfelt, melodic and sometimes startlingly wise, For People Like Us is the best yet from the very talented Bryan Master.