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Jon Brion | Meaningless (Straight to Cut-Out)
If ever there was a man unsure of his talents, it was Jon Brion. From its self-deprecating title, pale-blue minimalist exterior (as if to say 'ignore me'), and defeatist label name, this absurdly overdue album couldn't have been released with less fanfare. Available via his web-site (www.jonbrion.com and/or www.jonbriondirect.com) following the example set by contemporaries/collaborators/friends Michael Penn, Aimee Mann and The Eels, and stores wise enough to go the extra yard to promote great music, Meaningless is a fantastic album. There, Jon, I said it. Ignoring his 80s venture, The Bats (legendary but truly horrible), Brion first made his impact upon musical history with The Grays. I won't repeat verbatim the mini-biog. that slipped into my review of fellow-Gray Buddy Judge's Profiles in Clownhenge solo debut (CwaS#5), but alongside Judge and Jellyfish/Air alumnus Jason Falkner, Brion penned some enduring classics during the short-lived supergroup project (1 album, 2 many egos) and it's little short of a tragedy that it's taken him seven years to deliver this eleven track set of ten originals (the one cover a 7 minute reworking of Cheap Trick's Voices). As with most adored writers who operate within the pop sphere, Brion's fan-base borders on the rabid and assorted demos have slipped through the net over the years and some of those songs show up here in a more realised form. Unlike recently unearthed travesties from the previously untouchable Andy Sturmer (Jellyfish), Brion's songs have not suffered from their extended stay behind locked doors. Neither, it should be pointed out, has Brion lived anything like the reclusive, spotlight-shunning lifestyle of others. Whether sat behind the producer's chair, sharing the songwriting laptop or scoring the occasional top-drawer movie, Brion's genius can be heard on some of the finest records to have emerged in the nineties. He is all over Fiona Apple's masterpiece When The Pawn...[hey, shoot me, I LOVE that album], and he adds craft and production prowess to The Eels' Beautiful Freak (co-penning Not Ready Yet), added colour to Elliott Smith's Figure 8 and has featured heavily on all three of Aimee Mann's classic albums. Somewhat in Mann's shadow, he also provided the orchestral score for Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. So far, so much history and an impressive CV. What of Meaningless? Thankfully bereft of production and guest appearance overkill, Brion relies on his own multi-instrumentalist skills and a small group of studio stalwarts (Benmont Tench, Greg Liesz, Jim Keltner) plus the occasional backing vocal by Mary Lynn Rajskub (previously unknown to these ears) to propel these tastefully understated meditations on human failing and frailties. The jaunty I Believe She's Lying blends a busy drum-pattern (not dissimilar to Apple's Fast As You Can) with a traditional relationship lyric, containing such incisive lines as "I trust her to undermine my faith in her / In time / I have every confidence that she'll dismantle mine." Co-written by Aimee Mann, I can't be the only person who hears one in the other's songs, their phrasing and falsettos so similar at times. The title track is pure pop euphoria, huge and swirling, propelled by a steady backbeat and prone to lift off every thirty seconds. Harmlessly enjoyable fun. There's a similar pattern throughout the record, melodic balladry followed by shameless catchiness underpinned by mature lyrics and solid musicianship, plus the now-prerequisite f-word to show that radio play isn't top of the agenda. "Though he's out of her sight he's in her mind and in my hair...so long as he's the life in her / He'll be the death in me," Brion sings in Her Ghost, an all-too-familiar ode to the lure of an ex, beautifully arranged with a Beatlesque chorus and (sampled?) brass and strings presence. The record, which seems initially unadorned with such flourishes is peppered with such inventive deft touches. "I might not have anything to offer you / I might not have anything to say that's new / But you've gotta start somewhere" the album begins humorously, Brion surely acknowledging the extended gestation period of Meaningless. Thankfully the song (Gotta Start Somewhere) also includes the optimistic promise "I continue you in the hope I have a follow up / And if I do then you might not ever shut me up" - think we can hold him to that?

Matt Dornan
June-July 2001

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