Jonathan Badger, Unsung Stories from Lily’s Days as a Solar Astronaut

Jonathan BadgerI’ve been meaning to review this disc for several months now, but my computer doesn’t recognize it when I put it in, so it hasn’t made its way onto my iPod, and my car CD player would get a few tracks into it and freak out. And then I, of course, would forget that I have it. Which has been unfortunate, because when I have been able to listen to it, either by swiping my son’s now-unused CD player or remembering to bring it to work, where my Mac is much more accommodating, I’ve been fascinated by it.

Aside from having one of the best titles in recent memory, Jonathan Badger’s Unsung Stories from Lily’s Days as a Solar Astronaut is a challenging but ultimately rewarding disc that slams together an avant-rock mindset equipped with weapons-grade guitar bursts, an intriguing electronic setup and a compositional sensibility that’s largely improvisation-based. Badger has developed a system that augments his live guitar structures with laptop-selected sound samples and loops triggered not just by what he’s playing, but how it’s being played. Mellotron tape loops are also controlled by the guitar’s MIDI output.

It’s easy to overlook the electronic side of things, however, when the first angry, feral guitar chords of “The Vessel Megalo” rip the air wide open in front of you and drums slam out an angry backbeat. At that point it feels almost like it’s going to be a straightforward, hard instrumental CD. That’s one of the draws of Unsung Stories… for me: the way Badger manages to maintain the structural familiarity of that rock feel while crashing it at speed into the forward-thinking subversion of a compositional approach unfettered by convention.

Throughout the disc, Badger uses that subversion to unseat the comfort we take in a melody by twisting and roughening it. It makes us stop listening passively and start looking actively at what’s being done so that we can try to understand. Listen to the way an established rhythm breaks down, regroups and rebuilds over and over in “Beat 1” as fingerboarded guitar squares off against a chipset-like riff that mimics it. Or the way Badger takes the almost-baroque simplicity of a piano and flute duet in “His Face Like Glass to the Touch” and drops in a wayward fuzzy guitar, disjointed snipped vocal samples and a battery of processing and filtering changes, forcing the basic tune to continually work to return to its original state. “Surface” is about the most straight-up track here, boasting a guitar riff that fell out of a Sergio Leone western, but even here Badger runs a serratred electric wire around and through it to try to draw focus away while at the same time requiring the listener to focus more. In each track, while the intent of the thing remains, its appearance is in near-constant flux, bending toward unrecognizability and thus our perception of and understanding of it changes as well.

At time the higher concepts at work in Unsung Stories… can leave me a little cold–or just feeling like I don’t get it. For example, I get lost in the piano tangle in “The Insight That Comes From Repeated Time Dilations” (which, by the way, is a great title) and find myself moving on. But it’s the exception rather than the rule. Badger’s complexity makes me want to listen deeper to more fully take in the experience.

The packaging of this disc is also worth calling out. The inside of the case is strewn with what appear to be random old clippings from books and newspapers. Look at them carefully, though–the text on each pertains in some way to the titular Lily and her days as…well, you get it. It’s an interesting way to add a depth of narrative that goes beyond the music. It serves to invest you a bit more in the concept. Well done.

When you’re ready to think about your music, listen to Unsung Stories from Lily’s Days As A Solar Astronaut. The reward is very much worth the effort.

Available from Jonathan Badger’s web site or MT6 Records.

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