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Jeff Merchant: Window Rolled Down
Neo Pop Gem Enriches the Musical Landscape
By Mark Kirby
(more articles from this author)
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We are seeing the beginnings of a pop music revolution. Musicians from such far-flung musical worlds as James Blunt, Christina Aguilera and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have common elements, ones that underlie most of the great music ever created. These are discernable, memorable melodies and song structures. In response to hip hop, rap music, and those never-seem-to-die punk variations (most indie rock, neopostpunk, blah, blah), listeners and artists are, to quote Christina's new album title, going back to basics. And by going back to those timeless elements, artists are opening up themselves and listeners to fresh new vistas of expression that are so old that they're new.

In the vanguard of this movement is Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Merchant. On his new CD Window Rolled Down (Jeff Merchant - Window Rolled Down), he draws on his past as a performer and astute music fan to create a unique pop sound.

[Kirby] How would you describe your music?

[Jeff Merchant] I would describe my music as being a unique and original melodic brand of pop. Some call it chamber pop, orchestral pop or indie pop. Any of those terms work for me. Basically, I'm not trying to sound like anyone else but comparisons are inevitably made. The names most often used of what I sound like are Belle and Sebastian, Donovan, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, Nick Drake and Ray Davies.

For this writer, he leaving out Brian Wilson, and the intelligent, swinging pop of '60s hit makers The Association ("Windy" "Never My Love"). But all of these comparisons are for lazy writers and even lazier music fans; make no mistake, Mr. Merchant has his own sound, a compendium of ingredients that remind one of others. There is Donovan's dreaminess and Wilson's tuneful melancholy and torment masked by sweet pop tones and angelic harmonies; the rising and crashing power of early Who (see and hear "I Can See for Miles" on Who Sell Out); the orchestral rock majesty of the late great and influential Arthur Lee and Love.

[Jeff Merchant] I write about subjects that are interesting to me or affect me personally. I strive to be sincere when I write. The lyrics have to mean something to me and be real for me in order for the song to work. I want to write about what's really happening and real life experiences can often be disappointing, disillusioning and sometimes depressing.

"Landlord Song" and "On Sidewalks and Backyards" are classic hippie rock songs like the kind made by The Monkees (don't laugh, check out Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.) and Jefferson Airplane. They musically illustrate an acid influenced view everyday life - whimsical, darkly humorous, life as comedy not tragedy.

The distinctive sound of pop music influenced by hippie-era '60s psychedelia derives from folk music with its simple melodies and chords, its rich harmonies, and a dreamy vision drunk on possibilities. "On Sidewalks and Backyards," more than any millennial indie-anti-neo folk rock, captures these qualities. The melody, and how it flows throughout the song, recalls the best work of the late Syd Barrett. It starts with chimes, cymbals, bells and guitar. The rich sounds and melody sets up something most pop and indie rock artists never consider - atmosphere. The cello enters with Mr. Merchant's clear, earthy vocals, but instead of running with or over the voice, it tickles the tune and dances around the voice. French horn and recorder give further color to this psychedelic slice-of-life song.

"Landlord Song" is a magical realist take on leaving a fucked-up apartment. "Walls came down roof fell in / Called the landlord he didn't come in / I'm washed up fooled constantly / (Yo no s) It's a long night come into the light / 'Cause I won't be here anymore. . . Come inside my beautiful apartment / Yes I've called the health department / 'Cause cracks don't lie . . ." The song is light pop, but elevated by the ethereal vocals by Heather Shawn Lockie and Sarah Folkman. Eileen Lucero adds simple counter melodies on recorder.

"Landlord Song" is a rollicking, cut time masterpiece that could have been made by unsung pop genius Burt Bacharach if he was given a tighter budget. Of particular Bacharachian note is the French Horn, Flugelhorn and trumpet playing of Probyn Gregory, multi-instrumentalist sideman for Brian Wilson and others. The horns add unique tones and colors and soaring richness to particular parts of the song. Each part of this song flows into the next in ways that are both expected and surprising. The stately and lovely music contrasts the song's sad subject matter.

"Although my songs may have dark undertones, there is still a bit of light at the end of the tunnel and beauty in the decay and the loss," he states. "I'm always on a quest for some truth. I like to incorporate catchy, pop melodies and elaborate pop arrangements into my songs, while avoiding the banalities sometimes heard in commercial top-40 pop music." Merchant deftly uses, on this and other songs, orchestral ideas and instruments that gave the music of the sixties such vibrant color.

His songs, while unified in sound, always offer some little nuance that gives them a special quality. They have the pop arrangements and sweetness that, in the past or in a better future, would garner hit song status. "Low Light" starts with simple guitar and a trumpet melody. The song is anchored by a strident bass line and Nelson Bragg's subtle drumming. Keyboard strings and a mini-female chorus add both heft and floatation, especially in the sing song chorus: "Once over and never seen again / Call yourself impermanence / Before the pain sets in / What's over you and all the rest / Call yourself shadowy in the low light." The sing song chorus of this song mixed, once again, sadness and sweetness.

This unity of sound mixed with nuance and experimentation is no accident, and was the result of a particular creative process. "Most of these songs were written in LA, about life in LA, so they worked together thematically," he says. "I utilized different musical approaches for each song. Most started out with just acoustic guitar and vocals. Others were recorded more conventionally starting with the basic drum tracks. Overall, I wanted to create original arrangements utilizing some unique sounds that could ultimately bring out the best qualities of each song."

Mr. Merchant's creative use of music's tried and true elements has its roots in his youth. "I was actually born in LA," he states. "When I was very young, I went on a field trip to Capital Records where they gave everyone a Beach Boys single of "Darlin'" as a souvenir. I really loved that song. I still do. There's something about hearing it that hits me deep.

I listened to a lot of commercial radio as a child and album oriented FM radio. As a teenager, my older brother had a vast music collection of rock, pop, jazz and classical music which I'd listen to on his expensive, top-of-the-line stereo. I was influenced by the creative spirit of the Post-punk/New Wave period of music: Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, Television, Patti Smith, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, The Stranglers, XTC, The Jam, amongst others." Being a precocious child it was soon apparent what direction he would be taking musically. "My first guitar was made out of plastic. I played the first song I ever wrote at my elementary school graduation ceremony. The song was called, 'Pollution is Here'."

[Kirby] Describe the other music projects you have done (and are doing) and how these experiences have influenced your musical development.

[Jeff Merchant] I fronted a pop band called PG-13 a few years back where I fine tuned my pop sensibilities and wrote a lot of material. I hosted and produced an alternative singer-songwriter showcase called "Broken Mic" held at a Silverlake club called Spaceland and other venues. It gave me an opportunity to be exposed to and meet many different songwriters with various musical styles and backgrounds. Working with Stew (of The Negro Problem semi-fame) has definitely rubbed off on me, since he's such a remarkable songwriter. I've played with him over the years and the most recent project we did together was a group called The Lullabies. I've played bass in various bands and projects, most notably, a psychedelic art funk band called Gutbucket. As a result, I became a pretty solid bass player and played all the bass parts on my CD (except for the upright bass on one song).

"I've also played in experimental, free style improvisation bands, worked with multimedia performance groups and created numerous sound collages which were used in live performances. All this adds to a diverse background which I can draw from." This spirit of music experimentation - using, classical, blues and jazz - is an unused, non-recycled aspect of rocks music's past. Mr. Merchant's time in free improvisational jazz and art funk is shown in the song "Guy," with its intro of demented saxophone, dissonant organ, and chicken scratch wah-wah guitar lurching into a groove. The wimpy-tough vocal of the song's jilted lover mellows into sad whimsy (or is it whiney), sung with Merchant's signature smoothness. Nothing here, however, is for show. All the musical elements in this song, and all the others, fit together in order to illustrate what the song is about. In this case the anger, craziness, and sad acquiescence regarding the guy in question, are all musically illustrated.

[Kirby] What is the concept behind the Window Rolled Down CD?

[Jeff Merchant] Initially, there was no real concept behind the CD. It started out as a home recording project and I basically wanted to put down some new songs I'd recently written and some older songs I'd never recorded. But as the recording progressed (and I got more comfortable using Pro Tools), I began working more organically and started experimenting with different sounds, instrumentations and arrangements. Since I didn't have a band going into this project, I was free to put down whatever musical parts I wanted. It was fun to have that much creative freedom, but it took a lot of work and time to get it where I liked it.

Although I had played a lot the instruments and sang some of the backup vocals myself, I gradually started bringing in different musicians and singers to add further enhancements. I ended up doing additional tracking and final mixing at a real recording studio. I have to give a lot of credit to the co-producer and engineer, Michael Rozon for honing in and fine tuning my ideas and getting rid of the unnecessary ones.

That last phrase sums up the essence of good pop music and what makes Jeff Merchant and his CD Window Rolled Down such a bright spot on the pop landscape.

Photo Credits:
Main photo by Denise Siegel
Second photo by Popgunne
Third photo by John Perry

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