Brian Woodbury And His Popular Music Group
Pay Attention

(Some Phil)

Quite funny to notice - after finding a copy of this CD in my mailbox - that the last time I wrote about Brian Woodbury and his music was in 2004, at the time of the release of his excellent album under the moniker Variety Orchestra. An interview I conducted after my review appeared gave me the chance to discover the enormous - also enormously varied - body of work composed and arranged - and let's not forget his song lyrics - by Woodbury, a man for whom I'm sure the word "versatile" was invented.

I'll immediately clarify that - though I suspect I missed a few chapters of his most recent history - when it comes to Woodbury the fact of having no new releases doesn't mean there's no activity going on, as easily proved by his work in the field of musical theater and his collaboration with many TV programs, both as a composer and an arranger. An occupation that's also a source for the great variety of music featured on this album, something that's definitely not common nowadays.

If I'm not mistaken, Pay Attention is the second album released with the line-up - but it's better to think about an "attitude" when it comes to "genres", than an actual group - called "His Popular Music Group", their first album being the only work I'd listened to, and greatly appreciated, at the time the Variety Orchestra album was released.

Just like on their first album, the music featured on Pay Attention plays with various genres, marrying them to lyrics that can be funny or serious - also, seriously funny. A very fine singer - it's only his being a "natural" when it comes to dealing with many diverse styles that could make listeners underestimate his bravura - Woodbury is also a gifted arranger, ably assisted by a score of musicians who can navigate the perilous waters of any "genre".

Besides singing, here Woodbury plays guitars, bass, and keyboards; he also deals with programming and mixing. The nucleus of the line-up features Andy Sanesi, on drums and percussion; Dan Lutz, on double bass and electric bass; David Witham, on piano. I'll also mention some musicians that, though they appear on just a few tracks, are an integral part of the charm of this album (this list is not exhaustive): Marc Muller, on guitars, pedal steel, and various stringed instruments; Nick Ariondo, on accordion; Ben Powell, on violin; Glen Berger, on woodwinds, including the flute; Chris Tedesco, on multiple trumpets; Dan Levine, on trombone, tuba, and euphonium.

The only criticism I have when it comes to Pay Attention - besides a kind of "philosophical" point I'll talk about at length at the end of this review - it that it's a bit too long, something that in my opinion in the end dilutes its impact. While a few tracks appear to outstay their welcome - with the exception of The Only Song, one of the high points on this album, all tracks whose duration starts with the number "4" would definitely benefit from some trimming - I would have removed the three tracks that close the album, which in my opinion has a more "natural" ending in Diplomatic Plates.

Just like those singles released in the 60s, all tracks on the album sound "complete" when listened to on their own, something that readers are invited to do.

Let's have a look at those tracks.

Pay Attention is a fine album opener, funny, sporting acoustic guitar, agile winds, and a fine bridge (there are quite a few good ones on this album, the bridge sadly being something like an endangered species nowadays).

The Real World has acoustic and electric guitars, it reminded me of...? The lyrics talk about " false beliefs widely believed to be true". Here the instrumentation highlights violin, piano, and vocals.

You Had Me is a funny country track, a bit too long.

Diamond Ring is a joyous ballad, with acoustic guitars, drums, piano, and a winning chorus.

A Second Wind has a very fine melody - it reminded me of Van Dyke Parks - with acoustic guitar, mandolin, and a great accordion.

Every Lousy Band has a fine "funky" groove starring bass and drums, not sure the target is worth of so much attention, though.

Murphy Bed is a melodic ballad starring acoustic guitar and piano.

Born has an elegant, ever-changing, melodic development, and trumpets galore.

New York's Gone is a jazzy track - it reminded me of The Microscopic Septet - starring piano, double bass, and muted trumpets, it sounds like a theme song from a musical.

Now It's The Man's Turn is funny, country, with violin and dobro to the fore. Fine vocals, and acoustic guitar.

He Wrote Himself Off sounded quite ordinary to me.

The Only Song is one of the high points of the album: complex, harmonically varied, very fine vocals (Tulasi Rain on second vocals), and orchestration starring flutes, trombone, and euphonium. I don't know whether Woodbury will agree, but at times it reminded me of James Taylor.

If I Had A Nickel - about musicians' remuneration when it comes to the Web - has a fine groove, a great piano, bass and drums, "fake" winds, and a real saxophone.

Asteroid talks about Courtney & Kurt. Funny but serious. Great bridge.

Diplomatic Plates is fast!, it reminded me a bit of Ben Folds. Great trumpets.

What Is God? sounded dull to me.

Y2K is the "strange" track here: electronics, vocoder, rap.

Mantra sounded a bit meh.

Talking about my "philosophical" criticism now. Listening to Pay Attention immediately reveals that the "popular music" played by the "Popular Music Group" is music that was  "popular" once upon a time (it has to be noticed that the only song that wears more contemporary clothes is also the one that here sounds "out of place", besides being totally unremarkable).

I would not define the approach taken on this album as "dated", but many times in the course of my listening sessions I found myself listening to the music "in quotes", like I would when watching a musical in a theater. Something which - by constantly reminding me that it's all a "mise en scène" - greatly diminishes its impact.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2015 | Nov. 7, 2015