Familiar But Vital
Jonathan Wilson’s second album Fanfare revitalizes the Laurel Canyon tradition of lush, euphoric, and introspective singer/songwriting he embodied in 2011‘s Gentle Spirit. But far from a nostalgic tribute to the cocaine cowboys of the ’70s, this kaleidoscopic vision flourishes out of the folk-rock seedbed where it has its roots.
Wilson is an artist who can make big musical changes sound seamless. Take the title track, which is exactly the parade-like grand opening its name suggests. It starts with the slow tension of a desert sunrise. The bluesy piano riff, groovy bass line, and pensive beat sound like a countdown to something familiar—perhaps Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home”? But what comes next is unexpected. It suddenly erupts into a curious key change with sweeping strings, powerful rock percussion, and ever-modulating piano chords that could have been comped out by Sgt. Pepper himself. The album is rich with moments like this that surprise the mind and delight the ears.
Fanfare does a lot of sophisticated shape-shifting. “Fazon,” for instance, has all the funky dissonance of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. Wilson’s guitar solos shred the sky in “Dear Friend” and “Illumination.” Ethereal soundscapes hang in the background during the quiet moments of “Her Hair Is Growing Long” and “New Mexico.” But every song thrives within the same cosmic atmosphere thanks to the spectacular choral harmonies that ring out with Wilson’s voice throughout the record. They are contributed subtly, yet substantially by very special guests: David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Josh Tillman (formerly of Fleet Foxes), among others. The harmonies on tracks like “Future Vision” and “Cecil Taylor” are close and high, almost madrigal-esque. This silky backing blends ecstatically with Wilson, who often sings quietly, almost under his breath, when he’s not achingly resonant.
You won’t have to listen closely to make out echoes of at least one of your favorite ’70s rock albums here (and you’ll probably hear comparisons to Pink Floyd, Dennis Wilson, and John Lennon elsewhere). But Fanfare ultimately feels alive and goes where it pleases at its own unhurried pace. In fact, the album’s real charm and greatest accomplishment is its disinterest in sounding like anything else, even when it does.