(Primary Records, 2015)
Jonah Parzen-Johnson is fed up. He’s not a happy camper. He’s restless and anxious, and he’s sick of what you and I are becoming. That’s right – he really does care about you and me for some reason, even though we’re drowning in our own self-serving crapulence and not giving a flying fudge about anything. Know why we’re in such bad shape? ’Cause we’re tethered to the past, man! To our own nostalgia, and its grip on our metaphysical windpipe continues to tighten, so much so that we’ll succumb to spiritual blackout if we don’t do something about it. So yeah, Jonah Parzen-Johnson is one PO’d dude.
What’s he gonna do about it, you ask? What would anyone with a predilection for experimental saxophone/synthesizer composition do in that situation? He’s gonna make a record. This here record, in fact.
So this week, from my own personal “Eureka! Hour,” I bring you Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow. (This one really came out of nowhere – I totally forgot it was even on my list, and I knew nothing about it until I heard it.) It fully and physically combats the idea that “the best period in [our] generation’s lifespan was gone,” the idea that we have nothing all that great to offer and that we’re content being useless and benign and stuck in a rut of our own wistfulness. The status quo is not something we should be content with – we should confront the systems that keep us in our place, that grind us until we’re glazed and complacent. Remember When Things is Parzen-Johnson’s defiant statement that if anything’s going to happen and if anyone’s going to be inspired to move beyond stasis, it may as well start with him.
And what a statement. As I mentioned above, Parzen-Johnson is a saxophonist who leavens his compositions with healthy doses of analog synthesizer, and the result is part jazz, part prog, and part folk, but fully other and beyond those mere descriptions. And even though the entire record is made simply with those two instruments, recorded live to two-track tape without using loops, or overdubs, the sound is full and fresh and edgy. It’s even, dare I say, approachable and listenable in more than just a single exact situation. That means you can play this for your friends who like Weezer and they might just get into it. Or, if your friends exclusively like Weezer, they might not. (In which case you need to maybe switch your friends.)
Sax is first and foremost Jonah Parzen-Johnson’s calling card, and it’s given primary weight on the recordings, but the synthesizer is the element that takes the record to the next level. I gotta admit, it really surprised me how well the two go together, and how adept Parzen-Johnson is at composing this type of experimental music for seemingly disparate palettes. The synth adds an otherworldly pulse to a track like “I Wrote A Story About You, Without You,” removing the noir-esque saxophone from its usual surroundings to a completely alien environment. Or, on “If You Can’t Sleep, Just Close Your Eyes,” the smoky jazz is softened by the bed of synthesizer chords, turning it into a lullaby that begs for a Julee Cruise cameo. Then there’s the utter craziness of “Eyes Like Paddles,” which breaks into sci-fi arpeggios about a minute and a half into the track. It’s unsettling and strange, and makes for one of the best passages on the album.
Some other highlights include a “cover” (more a reimagining) of Neil Young’s “On the Way Home,” and the trio of remixes that close out the album, by Anthony LaMarca, Diamond Terrifier (Sam Hillmer is no stranger to this website), and Adam Schatz. But the real highlight is that Jonah Parzen-Johnson has achieved what he’s set out to do – he stops “drowning in nostalgia” and starts devoting time to “the hundreds of little ways” to fix the things that are wrong, the “broken systems” in our lives. He’s overcome complacence of style and execution and dropped a record on us that serves as a wake-up call for us to do the same. Bravo – somebody had to do it.
RIYL: Colin Stetson, Sam Hillmer, John Butcher