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John Parish | Once A Upon A Little Time (Thrill Jockey)
Although it's taken several years for John Parish to deliver this follow-up to his 'official' solo debut - 2002's 'How Animals Move' - it's not as if he's been idle.  What with touring/recording bouts as a semi-official member of Giant Sand, contributing to M Ward's sublime 'Transistor Radio', providing a live score for a travelling Belgian theatre company and several production jobs for Italian musicians, Parish's air miles have certainly been racked up through gainful music employment.  And instead of these endeavours obstructing the construction of Parish's sophomore album, they may indeed have helped hone his new solo material, at least with the recruitment of some new European accomplices.
Cut primarily in collaboration with a tight-knit band, featuring Giorgia Poli (bass/vocals), Marta Collica (keyboards/vocals) and erstwhile PJ Harvey percussionist Jean-Marc Butty (drums), 'Once A Upon A Little Time' is Parish's attempt to formulate an intimate vocal-led antidote to the eclectic and largely wordless 'How Animals Move'.  The results are both strange and familiar.  Some may find Parish's rarely used vocal chords - pitched somewhere between James Yorkston and Glen 'Piano Magic' Johnson - a bit of a surprise, especially with them being so high in the mix.  Musically too, Parish eschews the elaborate strains of 'How Animals Move' for a low-key amalgam of atmospheric pieces that draw heavily upon the influence of his past collaborators and employers.
The unhinged folk-rock of Even Redder Than That recalls Parish's brief stints with The Eels and 16 Horsepower quite joyously and forcefully.  Two croaky lo-fi confessionals - Glade Park and The Last Thing I Heard Her Say - remind us of Parish's role on Sparklehorse's 'It's A Wonderful Life'.  A couple of the short instrumental interludes - Salò and Water Road - could easily fit on one of Howe Gelb's piano records.  With some inevitability, it's Parish's work experience with Polly Harvey that casts the biggest shadow over proceedings, especially on the thick bass-driven grind of Boxers and in the ragged rockabilly-blues of Sea Defences. That's not to say Parish's own muse doesn't raise its head however, given that the avant-classical flavoured Choice and the near-ambient Stranded seem like logical progressions from 'Animals'.  
Ultimately though, a lot of 'Once A Upon A Little Time' relies too much on Parish's impeccable skills as a shape-shifting arranger, not on his abilities as a songwriter.  Beneath the rich sonic layers, Parish too often sounds like he's just left in dummy guide vocals and lyrics, over which a more characterful presence should have been slotted at a later date.  In essence, 'Once A Upon A Little Time' is not a strictly bad album - indeed there are many individual moments to recommend it on a purely instrumental-level - but it's one that leaves far too many punch-lines left unsung to make it worth repeated visits.  

Adrian Pannett
October 2005

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