Jon Brion is certainly best known these days as a producer, having helmed classic albums for the likes of Fiona Apple, and collaborating with Kanye West on Late Registration, providing the sonic direction for just about all the rest of his releases to date. What more casual fans of Brion don’t know is that he’s an artist himself-and has had a recording career since he was a teenager. As a member of The Bats, he released the critically acclaimed How Pop Can You Get? all the way back in 1982. While he’s focused on session work and production since then, that didn’t stop him from releasing Meaningless back in 2000. Although the album wasn’t a commercial success, it’s lack of sales is no indication of the quality of the songs included on it. Brion reveals himself as an engaging and unique sounding vocalist, as well as a solid if quirky songwriter. The production…well, seriously. What do you expect the production quality of a Jon Brion album to be?
While the songs on Meaningless are certainly fully formed, and the album’s not underproduced, most of the album doesn’t have the cinematic sweep of a When The Pawn…, but a more stripped-down approach works just as well for Jon. Take, for example, “I Believe She’s Lying”, a song that can just as easily be played simply on an acoustic guitar as it can in the more elaborate fashion that it appears as here. All he really adds are another (electric) guitar and some cool electronic touches, including a burbling backbeat and an extra track of vocals on the chorus that appear to have been generated through a vocoder. This all converges to create the most catchy song on an album full of catchy songs-kudos to Aimee Mann, who co-wrote the song. On the other hand, there’s the opulently orchestrated “Dead To The World”, which, according to Jon, contains “all optigan, chamberlin and mellotron.” Hell if I know what an optigan is, but it certainly sounds good.
Jon’s CD Baby page classifies Meaningless as Beatles-pop, and that description is not wholly inaccurate. Take Lennon’s sardonic lyrical flavor and mix it in a blender with McCartney’s sunny melodies and you have the blueprint for many of this album’s songs. The album’s chugging title track and the melancholy “Ruin My Day” (a song that anyone who pines for an ex can relate to) are a couple of songs that owe a debt of gratitude (as does most good pop music) to The Fabs. Hell, Macca would’ve probably traded away Heather Mills for a song as genuinely pop-savvy (and melancholy) as the piano-led “Hook, Line & Sinker” or the Bacharach-esque “Her Ghost.”
Despite being released in 2000, it’s interesting to note that Meaningless was actually finished in 1997. At the time it was done, Brion was signed to a major label, Lava/Atlantic. Not knowing what to do with the album, it sat on shelves until Brion was released from his contract and eventually was able to put it out on his own label, the cheekily titled Straight To Cut Out Records. Lava apparently was more interested in promoting Kid Rock and matchbox twenty. Hey, I don’t mind Rob Thomas at all, but an album like Meaningless beats the pants off of anything matchbox has ever composed in their lower-cased lives.
Not that Brion has let the grass grow under his feet. Have you read the first paragraph? In addition to his production work, he still plays gigs (including many with Fiona Apple…now, if someone could just direct them both to a recording studio…) and a new album has been rumored for quite a few years. Meantime, you can still purchase Meaningless through Jon’s CD Baby page or on Amazon. I guarantee you pop music rarely comes better than this, and considering it was recorded in the mid-Nineties, it shows remarkably little sign of age.
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