CD Review - Blaine Campbell's The Secret Snowstorm
Blaine Campbell is a man on a mission - most of the time. For the last few years, when he hasn't been entertaining friends with his home-taped Christmas records and intermittent LA area live shows, he's been involved in politics (including working with former Mayor Hahn, and having been a 2004 delegate to the Democratic National Convention!). For now, politics has taken a backseat to art and finally, seemingly years in the making, Blaine's made good on the promise of his holiday records with the release of his first album, The Secret Snowstorm.
Secret Snowstorm is an extremely ambitious record. Campbell has remarked more than once that his intent is to make the kind of record he wanted to listen to as a kid, and the result is a kind of tour through California's music history, especially that of the 60s and 70s, with Brian Wilson, Paul Williams and, improbably, Jeff Lynne as your guides. Divided into 4 'movements', each 3 songs long, it's a pop symphony describing a day-in-the-life of an unnamed protagonist as he, for lack of a better way to put it, sorts his shit out. It pays superficial tribute to what passes for winter on the left coast, but ultimately, serves to explore the image of California as the home of easy living and, perhaps, describe the loneliness of always being the life of the party. Nostalgic, deeply personal and unabashedly romantic, it's an imperfect but, ultimately, a beautiful debut.
The first movement describes a determined, serious attempt by the album's unnamed protagonist to waste his time (and perhaps, his life). The title track, a shameless imitation of Pet Sounds era 60s Beach Boys that segues into drum looped britpop song (recalling Hang To Your Ego as much as Kula Shaker), admonishing the subject to deal with his depression and embrace whatever it is eating at him before it tears him apart. Change My Ways, the second song, is a first person account of escapist drug use, and the urge to start over. Driving country rock soon gives way to subdued melancholy underscored by a whimsical banjo solo, that nails the life affirming loneliness of fresh starts (and spending days in a row faded) - one is forced to wonder if the intent is draw a parallel between America's vast appetite for mind altering chemicals, and our tendency to just pick up and move somewhere else willy-nilly, (or at least to fantasize about it.) The section closes with The Snow Channel, an ironically energetic, Thermin infused dance pop tribute to doing absolutely nothing except "watching TV with the snow channel on". Drum machine dance beats pound away until the song abruptly drags to a stop as if to call attention to the false bravado underneath.
It might be the backbone of literature, but handled poorly, unrequited love can be hackneyed, played out subject matter of the lowest kind. Fortunately, Campbell's decision to go full on Chicago X during movement 2, when he reveals it as the source of our protagonist's ennui, saves it. It begins with A Girl Like You... My Frozen Heart, a bossanova influenced ballad that morphs delicately into a muted, 1920s transition, laments that the object of the protagonists affections is entirely unavailable. Complementary to this sentiment, She Will conveys the hope that one can change their circumstances by believing enough - it may sound stalkerish but who hasn't hoped that if you just love someone enough, they'll love you back? But underneath is the clear impression that the protagonist has accepted the futility anyway. This acceptance is fully expressed in A LIttle Stronger, a "God Only Knows"-meets-"Good Vibrations" pastiche that compassionately explores the way hopeless romantics place their faith in love with the same credulity struggling actors do in 5 dollar psychics. By the end of this section, as Campbell sings "Nobody's gonna bring me down" in most sincere imitation of Brian Wilson, the protagonist has accepted the crushing disappointment of botched romance, and now wears it as a badge of honor.
If parts one and two are about disappointment, and the urge to escape, rather than deal with it, Part 3 and 4 are about what happens when you do decide to deal with it. Unlike the album's first half, which function (and feel) like stark distinctions, 3 and 4 bleed thematically and musically together - 3 is the beginning, and 4 the end, of actually getting your shit together and moving on.
Part 3 begins with the instrumental Icy blue, a melancholy palate cleanser that extends the catharsis of A Little Stronger before fading into Aloha!, an ardently sunshine pop tribute to the idea of endless summer days that morphs into a hilarious parody of Space Mountain - anyone who's ever made their own CD at Disneyland, filling it with sound effects from Tomorrowland will instantly get the joke. Part 3 ends with Arctic Island, a driving, ELO (by way of the flaming lips) that fades seamlessly into Alaskan Summer Days, a banjo backed toe tapper that compliments Arctic Island's urge to get somewhere with the satisfaction of having actually arrived. The next track, Anna, seems to give a name to the protagonist's earlier disappointment and though ultimately unresolved, it seems that by the time Campbell sings "I lay in bed and thought for a while. Today I made the biggest effort to smile." during the beautiful Today I Made The Biggest Effort To Smile, the point seems to be that you can move on, but it's harder than you think to leave everything behind you.
The Secret Snowstorm is more than the story I think I've managed to glean - Cambell insists there're also political references galore, especially to Kennedy, laced throughout. But for the listener not as inclined to look for political arcana, the album's humanistic embrace of a damaged heart is more than enough to enjoy it.
It should be noted that the record isn't perfect. Music nerds tend to worship more obsessively than ordinary fans and Blaine Campbell might be the president of that particular club. Again and again, he returns to the Brian Wilson (and to the laid back sounds of the 70s) as a aesthetic framing device, and your enjoyment of this album will therefore depend, at least in part, on how much you like the Beach Boys. More than that, the record is practically soaked with influences both sincere and opportunistic, always a risk when it comes to creating original art. Done wrong and you end up with What's The Story Morning Glory; done right, however, and you end up with Parklife. Fortunately, Blaine Campbell knows and understands pop music like it was written into his DNA and while Secret Snowstorm is drenched with the musical past, it hasn't been drowned by it. That is the distinction that separates a great concept album from dreck, and while this might not be Parklife, it's an exceptional first attempt.
Celebrating the release of The Secret Snowstorm, Blaine Campbell will be performing the album in its entirety, at The Buccaneer in Sierre Madre. 70 W Sierra Madre Blvd
Sierra Madre, Ca. 91024. Show starts at 930 PM.
Listen to The Secret Snowstorm.