"121 Normal" CD - Glenn Poorman
Review by John Edmonds
I sat spellbound one recent evening in a small-town theater watching an indie Hycam film scored with the haunting wails of Alan Parsons' "Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32." The very next day I received my long-awaited copy of Stickist and multi-instrumentalist Glenn Poorman's album 121normal.
Maybe it was coincidence, but it felt like synchronicity after Parsons' long-forgotten I Robot had filled my head through the night. While Parsons and Poorman have distinctly different styles — in fact the two albums sound very little alike — their works share a vibe of quiet and harmonious dissent, a dark commentary in sweet lullaby's clothing. So it makes some sense that these two energies have cycled around in almost Saturnian timing.
I hadn't heard the soaring strains and rumbling machinery of the Parsons album in nearly 20 years, a period during which Poorman was developing a sequence of his own studios, songs, tracks, loops, and other musical visions. Now, after more than two decades, Poorman's dreamscapes are born, in the form of a not quite solo effort also called 121normalâ€”the project and the album both named for the birthplace of their creator's original conceptions.
Much as I Robot's closing anthem marched amid the post-Watergate cynicism of its era, 121normal's undertones murmur of a once dubious future and an unsettling present. In Poorman's closing track, "The Wailing of the Damned," triggered samples of evangelistic fire and brimstone mingle with a certain president's calls of "We must restore chaos and order" and "catapult the propaganda for the truth to sink in." The previous track, "UTC," begins the ideas that "Wailing" further develops, warning of compulsory evacuations and heralding the dawn of shortwave radio. Like it or not, the future is coming, same as those robots of 1977, with their messages of "I wouldn't want to be like you" misanthropy and "Someone is watching you" paranoia. Even Poorman's album cover, delicately rendered by Amy Griffiths, evokes the reluctantly adventurous youngster of Parsons' "Day After Day" ("Think of a boy with the stars in his eye / Longing to reach them but frightened to try.")
Prophesy and politics aside, Poorman shares an appreciation for tasteful repetition and intelligent automation, a knack for good grooves and memorable melodies, a progressive approach to otherwise pop sensibilities, and a compass for collective destination not quite reachable with only one pilot. Whereas Parsons favored male vocals and glassy 12-string dreadnaughts, Poorman goes for the girls, 12-string Grand Stick, and 10-string Alto. Both artists make fervent use of howling electric guitars and light-stepping electronic drum sequences.
Poorman's judicious orchestrations are a clean canvas for his focused Stick tones and nimble tapping. In all, the album carries a polished celestial glow from start to finish. Everything is in its place and time, and Poorman has captured the sounds of his Sticks with fine precision.
121normal opens with the familiar "Frantic in Nature," which in solo variation has been one of Poorman's live staples. This fully orchestrated rendition encompasses much of what's to come, with its swirly, phase-shifted, ever panning Stick loops and staccato arpeggios. "Sunday in Salt Spring" slows the frenetic momentum and introduces the next common thread throughout this work: irresistibly sweet melodies that cascade one over another, always reminding us of a world that's gorgeous despite its troubles. With remarkable clarity in the Grand Stick's upper registers, Poorman achieves a dulcimer-like pling that chimes over a looped pedal tone and creates a sweet interplay with acoustic piano.
The third track, "Lookin Good at Eight," gets funky and brings on the album's next major character, the prerecorded radio voice. A random-sounding but no doubt well-calculated ostinato bounces through lunar wind, bleeps and bloops, and more pyramids of layered Sticks. "Remember When" seems to pay tribute to some likely Poorman influences: the watery Patch of Shades-era lead work of Emmett Chapman himself, the mellotron pads of King Crimson, and some sizzling solos that sound more like the fleet-fingered prowess of Joe Satriani than the woody soul tones of Parsons' Ian Bairnson.
Up next is a dreamily tapped Alto Stick showcase, "A Thousand Words." Then "London Trains" arrives from a familiar place, recapping elements of "Frantic" but with the added vocals of Mary Kay Blitz. Fittingly, its softly ricocheting drum patterns and silky smooth keyboards deliver a British-sounding urban slickness. It's a classy buildup to the floating and beautifully restrained "Langmuir," a short Enoesque cycle that serves as a midalbum intermission of sorts. After the break, we hear the Alto Stick again in "Hard Times," with a cheerful and lilting Stick groove and a chirpy, almost bagpipe-sounding counterpoint. "To Walk in Time" also features the Alto and brings back the female vocals, this time those of Julie Marcos, and showcases hot electric guitar leads in contrast to the song's cool, lolling, kick-it-over groove.
By now it's clear what 121normal is, at least in part, all about: marrying the Stick's historically prog rock roles with its versatile applications in the pop-rock-folk-world-fusion mixes. This makes the CD very accessible throughout, and it's bound to appeal to a wide audience. You're almost guaranteed to come away from 121normal with any one (and probably more) of its many hooks, beats, riffs, and melodies lingering in your mind.
The role of Greg Howard as co-producer, mixer, and mastering engineer is evident at every turn of these tunes, not unlike Parsons' behind-the-scenes fingerprints on Dark Side of the Moon.Howard has meticulously mixed these songs to capture the depth of Poorman's textures and to bring out the subtleties of, especially, the full-range Stick timbres.
By now, Stickists have come to know Poorman well through his broad involvement in the community, from his live performances and seminar organization to his various online roles in furthering the instrument. His debut Stick-centered release has been a long time coming, and indeed it proves a logical, exciting, and fitting culmination of all those efforts.