Review: Reclinerland – The Ideal Home Music Library, Vol. 1: Show Songs

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Jan. 12, 2004

Even a preliminary listen to the first volume of Reclinerland’s Ideal Home Music Library “series” will lead you to believe the group is not from Portland, Oregon but, instead, from some distant epoch, a much-removed musical era. But first, some back-story.

Michael Johnson, the songwriter, voice, and principal player behind Reclinerland, was supposedly temping at the American Institute of Musicology when he bumped into a strange British academic who worked as a custodian at the academy, Dr. Tad Middling. Or rather, Middling bumped into him, as he caught the musician red-handed trying to make some photocopies of a playbill for an upcoming Reclinerland show on an institute-owned Xerox. The two struck up a friendship of sorts, and Middling, who holds a Ph.D. in musicology, pushed Johnson and his indie-pop band toward recording a repertoire of old show tune standards. The Hush Recordings-released CD, recorded in 2002 and 2003, is the product of that experiment, a modern reinterpretation of the kinds of jazzy standards that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 20s and 30s. The record even comes complete with period photographs of the tunes’ composers, musical notation, and Middling’s researched texts on the songs’ origins.

For those who don’t do a double-take here or bother to carefully comb over the liner notes to the cleverly designed disc, there’s this bridge in Brooklyn that you may be interested in buying. In short, though it appears all of the songs on Reclinerland’s show tunes collection are penned and performed by Johnson and company (check the copyright info on the last page), it really doesn’t matter. The music on the first volume of Ideal Home Music Library is fascinating, no matter when, where, or by whom it was originally written.

Ideal Home Music Library opens in a plodding but calming march with “Give Up Your Film Career (Lenny’s Theme),” which largely sets the tone for the record: spare but emotive piano melodies, Johnson’s careful voice, and a fragile but effective sense of lyricism. The piano work that drives the record can be both of the dark tavern/nightclub at 1 am and the jazzy balladeer varieties, but it also has a flair and color to it that wouldn’t be out of place on a Black Heart Procession CD.

The difference between Reclinerland and other indie acts that have spoken through a few dozen ivory keys, however, is that Reclinerland isn’t interested in just referencing more traditional or classical modes of music. They’re interested in ringing emotion from songs and sounds that your grandparents might listen to and appreciate. The sentiment in Johnson’s album-opening rumination on failed stardom — and the content of much of what follows that number — might be decidedly young at heart, but it’s far from alienating an audience who make comments about “these kids today with their damn rock n’ roll music.”

The 12 tracks on the disc, though, are far from flat or predictable. Morgan Grace, supporting Johnson, plays the role of animated torch singer on the “Long Island City Love Song” and the boozy “One of Those Nights,” cooing lines like “Come closer, cop a feel” over piano and trumpet. While most of the record floats by the listener in cool and smoky tones, “The Lady From Riems” represents one of the record’s more campy moments, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in an Isherwood story. The album-closing “Rue Lane,” complete with contributions from accordion, has a sweet innocence and poppy bounce to it that could get a smile out of John Lennon.

But what Johnson and Reclinerland do best here is weave narratives — almost entirely with unadorned piano and voice — that tap into your nerves and really tug at your heartstrings. “The Girl of My Dreams” is a shining example of this, where Johnson wonders where in his everyday life he’ll eventually bump into the love of his life before he intones, “Who will the girl of my dreams be / If she isn’t you?” The vibraphone-introduced “Miracle Of Miracles” carries the same forward and emotional tone, with Johnson singing just barely above a soft whisper, accompanied by his piano and a lonely trumpet.

The one song that sells the record, though, that makes the whole experiment really work, is “My New York.” In the track, which is reminiscent of early Asylum-era Tom Waits, Johnson sings over a gentle brush of drums and the careful strum of a guitar, talking about all of the sites and details of the Big Apple and how each of them don’t matter much or define metropolitan living for him. After running over everything from Greenwich Village to the Guggenheim, he delivers the song’s textbook-perfect line: “Baby, My New York is you.” Johnson’s delivery, combined with the care and lyricism behind the song, is enough to illustrate how lacking in emotional punch much “modern” music can be, and how on the mark Reclinerland are with their ideal little collection.

Hopefully, more independent musicians looking for the route to some sincerity in their aural forays will listen in closely and sign on the dotted line to take part in the second installment.

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