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Culture of Self
Artist: Dan Wallace
Label: Torito Bravo Records
Time: 13 tracks/47:18
 
There’s a bottom line to good music.
 
When you strip away the production tricks, the synthesizers, the studio embellishments, the samples, and the cornucopia of digital manipulations, the bottom line is this: is there a song there? Is there a human being reaching through the fire-wall of commercial sameness, plucking something original from the creative side, and taking the chance that somewhere the music will resonate in the soul of a listener?  We usually call it ‘stepping outside the box,’ and that’s what Dan Wallace does on his new release, Culture of Self.

It’s not so much that Wallace has broken new musical territory, but he’s created a project using sounds as diverse as acoustic jazz, rock, pop, and even operetta to produce fresh sounding, human music. The pop sounds are refreshingly simple and the rock has a bold cutting edge to it, but underneath it all is a complexity of thought and structure that isn’t obvious until you’re well into the project. This is music by an artist whose sound owes as much to Sufjan Stevens and Todd Rundgren as it does to his unlikely pair of stated major influences: Dmitri Shostakovich and Frank Zappa. This is not your typical pop album…
 
Opening and closing the CD are two instrumental pieces: the first, “Counting,” is a short, atmospheric musical footbridge into the unexplored aural territory ahead, and the closing track, “Counting Backwards,” is an ambitious piece of orchestrated music, featuring Wallace on guitar, organ and piano, strings played by Emanuel Ban (violin and viola), Grace Hong on Oboe, and George Lawler on drums. The total effect, complex enough to incorporate surprising musical episodes within its structure, remains warmly human and intimate, much like the loosely-assembled group work of the afore-mentioned Sufjan Stevens. The piece is small and big at the same time, melancholy and exciting, tag-teaming woodwinds and strings against a rock and roll band – and it all works.
 
Between the opening and closing tracks you’ll find the basics of a really good pop/rock album. Wallace’s vocals are fragile-sounding (just enough) but versatile, and show surprising range, as in the first vocal track, “The Heap” – a song that typifies the surprising aspects of Wallace’s pop work, being what I’d call “eclectic psycho-pop” with an edge. The songs are catchy, with some real hooks, and often feature unexpected explosions of rock, and even jazz, sensibilities (the instrumental portion of this song is a good example of how Wallace can tear a good guitar solo right through your speakers). The fourth track of this surprising CD features Wallace accompanying an unexpected female vocalist, Robin Morgan (offering a surprisingly ‘straight’ soprano performance), on “I Want to Be”  - a song that would not sound out of place as a minor number in Les Miserables, if not for the frantic piano section in the middle. “Perfect Weather For a Superhero” and “The Low Road” return to a more conventional pop format, with Wallace showing considerable skills as a lead and background-harmony vocalist – the songs also feature a strong rock style to give the pop aspects some bite, and Wallace’s excellent work on the acoustic, as well as the electric, guitar.
 
“Heap Variation” is another instrumental, placed almost in the center of the project, and features, (mostly) two guitars interweaving, fugue-like, through an intricate melody. The piece lasts just under a minute, and recalls the short instrumental bits that Frank Zappa inserted into his classic Uncle Meat album - It’s a stunning 56 seconds full of precise, rapid guitar interplay and unusual melody. Three tracks later, “Insomnia,” with its loose structure, has unexpected moments that punctuate the mood, like the blast of rock in the middle, and the sophisticated band passages at the end. Perhaps the most surprising track (for me) is the remaining instrumental, “Bound to be Free,,” which sounds like a song Django Reinhardt would have written for Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. This might be the most surprising, impressive minute and forty seconds on the entire album. 
 
Wallace’s lyrics are, like his music, somewhat enigmatic and puzzling, if you look too closely. Like an abstract painting, or poetry, shadows of meaning from the lyrics emerge unexpectedly, when you’re not looking for them. In “The Heap,” Wallace writes: ‘…sometimes we have to go where everyone is, or at least where everyone’s been…’Lucky for us, on Culture of Self, Dan Wallace has gone where most artists haven’t been. He’s found that bottom line: there are real songs here.
 
By Bert Saraco 
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