Tall Tales on Tape
Although Graig Markel nearly always finds his name footnoted by his earlier grunge project New Sweet Breath, the multi-instrumentalist has long since established himself as a solo act. By now he may even be better known for the three releases under his own name, including The Gospel Project and Hard Grammar, than his collaborative involvement in the Seattle scene of the late 1990s.
Tall Tales on Tape shows a further development in Markel’s sound, a slight drift away from the sensual Prince-influenced bedroom ballads of his previous releases towards the darker, hard-edged, Motown-style rock of The Afghan Whigs. Both the deliciously catchy opener, “The Early Bird Gets By,” and the keyboard-driven (for the most part) following track, “Seasons in the Shroud,” clearly bear this out.
“The Year 3,000 Is Just Ahead,” one of Tall Tales‘ few aberrations, is mawkish and repetitive, better suited for the Dawson’s Creek soundtrack than this otherwise admirable disc. The first verse is constructed out of nonsensical forced rhymes (“The year 3,000 is just ahead/and disco is nearly dead/I won a free trip to Club Med…”), and Markel chose to conclude each chorus with the recommendation to “go and blow your brains out” — though the irony, if it’s intended at all, exerts too great a strain on the lyrics and music. It just sounds silly.
Things are quickly back on track with “Saturday Night Fractures” (hip-thrusting ’70s funk rock) and “Green Eyes,” in which Markel sneaks an overt lyrical reference to New Sweet Breath. The richer, more intricate orchestration that the singer-songwriter appears to have been aiming for is apparent on these two tracks. He brings in bursts of piano, harmonic vocals (his own), feedback and some light digital effects to fill out the songs, subtly enhancing their appeal without it seeming distracting or contrived.
“Wings,” albeit no great deviation from the standard rock style manual, is a great tune, aching and bittersweet, one that I would have liked to have had during a past period of tumultuous relationships. Back then a sad succession of muses I couldn’t live without needed to hear “when you’re mine/I’m blind/and you taste just like apple wine/in springtime,” especially as it’s sung here, with Markel’s sensitive, brooding stress on certain phrases. Unfortunately, the promising but dull “Black and Blue and Numb All Over” is sandwiched between this high point and another good Afghan Whigs-type song, “Water to the Flames.”
Tall Tales on Tape is arguably Markel’s best solo album on account of its consistency and confidence, among other less salient qualities. It’s also one of the better discs to pass through my stereo this year. The most heartening thing about it is that Markel’s songwriting and execution has continually improved over the course of his last four albums, thereby raising listeners’ expectations for a positively first-rate fifth. If he manages to fulfill this tacit promise, it will be worth the wait. Tall Tales will surely tide us over in the meantime.
Graig Markel: www.graigmarkel.com