Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Can a New Age Buddhist pop song be hip? Review of Junior Burke’s While You Were Gone (2007)

This CD would be very easy not to find, and that’s a shame. It’s a really good record, by a really good songwriter and singer and I didn’t find it until about 3 years after it was released. I know that I would never have found it had I not been looking, but I was looking for Thom Bishop and not Junior Burke. This story starts in the late 1970’s in Chicago. I was learning how to play the guitar and spent a fair amount of time going to clubs like Orphan’s and Somebody Else’s Troubles to listen to a lot of young singer-songwriters. One of the ones that stood out the most was Thom Bishop. He had a trademark mix of smooth literate folk and pop. He was deeply romantic, but struck a jaded pose. You had no doubt that like John Lennon, he could carve you up with a few well chosen words.

He wrote a number of musical theater pieces, including one on Sonny Liston that he co-wrote with Jim Tullio. He put out an LP called Wireless Wonder in 1981. He had a song recorded but never released by Bob Dylan in some late-80’s sessions produced by David Bromberg. He went to LA to pursue songwriting, screenwriting and supposedly writing the Great American Novel. I went to Austin in the mid-80’s following my own path.

In those pre-Internet days, he pretty much vanished. I found his CD Restless State of Grace by accident (a review of one of my releases was on the same page as a review of his CD in Dirty Linen) in the early 90’s. My wife found another CD ( Feed Me a Dream) in the late 90’s. I would search the internet for him on occasion and would find nothing. About a year ago I finally found a reference to him on a Wikipedia page where the mystery unraveled. Thomas Burke Bishop Jr. had changed his name to Junior Burke, become the head of the writing program at Naropa University in Boulder Colorado, written a novel, and released a “debut” CD. That CD was While You Were Gone, which is a very fine CD produced by Chicagoan Jim Tullio.

The recording and production are first rate throughout, as are all the musicians. Jim Tullio has produced records for such artists' as Richie Havens, Dave Mason, Rick Danko, Rosalie Sorrels, Mary McCaslin, David Bromberg, Steve Goodman, John Martyn, Mavis Staples, and many, many more. He contributes electric and acoustic guitars, bass, BG Vox and Percussion. Ed Tossing is excellent on piano on a number of cuts. John Rice contributes Guitars, Dobro, Fiddle and Bazouki. Travis Bernhard and Mark Walker are sitting in on Drums. Billy Panda contributes electric guitars on a couple tunes and slide on another. Chris Cameron plays the Hammond B3 on Blessed.

The words that come to mind when describing Burke’s songwriting are sophisticated, ironic, and literate. He’s as comfortable with “Copeland and Foster and Bernstein” as he is with Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Muddy Waters and R&B and Blues Singer-Songwriter Doc Pomus. He lays out the tracks on the CD with a novelist or playwright’s sense of structure, to tell a story. It starts off with the premise that love and happiness are unlikely and proceeds to demonstrate it through a series of songs where he tries on a variety of personas and styles from Literate Rocker, folk singer, Irish balladeer, Soft Jazz crooner and others. In the process, he strips away the masks that he has worn until he arrives at his true self expressed best in the refrain of the title cut, It All Happened While You Were Gone. At that point he can express and obtain true love in The Cool of the Day. But that is not quite the end of the story.

The CD kicks off with Teleclone Universe. Telecloning is some pretty complex quantum physics about cloning and teleporting information to multiple receivers that boils down here to a world where anything is possible (this is more Star Trek than Los Alamos). Think of it as multiple parallel universes where John Lennon doesn’t die, Jack Kerouac gets sober and is still on the road, there’s no Atomic Age, and Reagan waits backstage etc. Good mind-bending fun in a blues rock package. The moral of the story is that “in the teleclone universe/life rings clear and true/you end up with me/I end up with you.” The rest of the album makes clear that this is an unlikely outcome, especially factoring in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. You won’t understand Quantum Physics any better after listening to this, but you will have a smile on your face.

Black Eyed Susan is co-written with Billy McKay. This is folk finger-picking gem about a dark eyed woman of mystery and the price that you pay for loving her. The theme and the monotone vocal are both reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s classic Suzanne, though you would never mistake Burke’s tenor for Cohen’s rasp. Indeed, Cohen is a major influence on Burke. This is one of the real stellar cuts here, but is very understated and might slip by your attention. Here’s a taste: “She will say she’ll stay forever/she will say that you’re the first/she’ll promise you water from heaven’s well/while you’re dying there of thirst.”

Bed Full of Blue is a beautiful ballad about dreaming of a long-lost love co-written with Jim Tullio. This is typical of the romantic wistfulness and seemingly effortless wordplay that colors many of Burke/Bishop’s ballads. The song starts out with “What were you doing in my bed last night? What were you doing in my head last night?” and ends wistfully with, “What were you doing in my mind last night? What kind of truth did I find last night?” He also manages to seamlessly integrate references to Muddy Waters and blues songwriter Doc Pomus (Drifters, Ray Charles).

Tunnel at the End of the Light is an old Thom Bishop song reborn in an Irish/Celtic folk tune arrangement. I remember hearing Thom do this solo many, many years ago. The story is a Modern Romance, a cosmic attraction. It starts out with, “They were a match made in heaven/ He would say she was his kind of girl/ She had that something about her/ That made him jump out of his skin.” But somehow their love takes a turn for the worse. After the inevitable flameout, she begins to pick up the pieces. “Now the years have imparted a distance/ She sees it all now as a dream/Just something that happened to someone/ Without so much pain in between.” All of this, complete with Tenor and Irish Flute, Button Accordion, Bazouki, Piano and guitars and drums. Imagine Van Morrison with the Chieftains backing him.

Walking My Karma is another co-write with Jim Tullio. Burke plays the soft jazz crooner (think Michael Buble) warbling a hip, pop-Buddhist lyric. But then can a New Age Buddhist pop song be hip? The song reminds us that we get what we pay for and that we pay for our mistakes, whether in this or a past life.

What the Devil Loves is a bluesy number co-written with Nashville songwriter Fred Koller. Junior sings with gusto that, “We’ve all got something that we’re hungry for, that’s what the Devil loves.” And for good measure he adds: “Devil loves a poor man, poor man got to eat/Devil loves to tempt him with the taste of something sweet/Open up your Bible, there in Chapter One/Adam bit that apple and the devil’s job was done.” Junior adds some solid harmonica touches to the Guitar, Bazouki and Fiddle accompaniment.

Key to the Kingdom showcases Junior’s smooth soulful vocals and vibrato in a shuffling little tune about feeling left behind and wanting to get ahead in the world. “One buck buys you nothing/five bucks not much more/ten bucks wins the door prize/then you've got to lock the door/give me the key to the kingdom/I'm in a terrible bind/everybody's grabbing something/I think I’ll go get mine.” The smooth performance masks and softens the selfish longing attitude of the lyric.

It All Happened While You Were Gone is another old Thom Bishop love song and the tangled webs we weave, the loss of a true love and losing and finding our true self. This is an interesting choice as the title for the CD. Perhaps the ending sheds some light on the dichotomy of Junior Burke/Thom Bishop and the uneasy truce between the two elements of his persona. “It’s a sin, it’s a shame /What is done in the name /Of true love, till that love wanders home/I can’t grieve anymore /For what was done before/‘Cause it all happened while you were gone….” The song is about making peace with the past, realizing that what's done is done and being able to move on.

The song Cool of the Day is a jazz-inflected tune of true love and the support that a true lover brings “In the cool of the day, I can feel you…” and “When my strength starts to stray, you surround me/All my fear goes away once you’ve found me.” There’s some great piano work by Ed Tossing (as there is on several songs).

Autumn Ending is a new recording of a song released previously on Feed Me a Dream. While this is a very good version of the song, again with wonderful piano work by Ed Tossing I was perplexed at first at why it might be here. The song invokes a moment of purity and innocence just before JFK’s assassination. The song is an attempt to recapture that moment of clear blue sky before winter comes and changes everything. This is the spiritual heart of the record and the clearest expression of Burke/Bishop’s dilemma. He truly wants to shed all the masks and cynicism to get to that pure and innocent feeling, but to him it’s more dream than reality. It slips away so easily. “When I awoke, it went like smoke” as he writes in another a song from Feed me a Dream.

The album closes with Blessed , which is very reminiscent of late Leonard Cohen tunes like The Future and Everybody Knows . The song is an apocalyptic vision spoken over an insistent rock beat, Hammond organ, and electric guitars. Junior chants that “Blessed are the hopeless with too much to bear/blessed are the clerics for their twisted prayer/blessed are the fingers that shuffle the cards/blessed are the fires in the barren yards.” The song is filled with resurrections, saints, heretics, innocents, criminals and brides. There is some shred of hope in the lyrics, but you get more of the sense of Hieronymus Bosch or Brueghel. If we are to survive, we will have to overcome this reality. You don’t do that with wishful thinking or longing for lost loves. If at all, you do it by being who you are.

If you can find it, pick up a copy of Junior’s novel, Something Gorgeous. It’s a great read and an alternative take (think Teleclone Universe) on The Great Gatsby. It takes on many of the same themes of identity, true love, and fate that he tackles in this fine CD.

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