I'm as guilty as the next guy, but we music writers do Alan Singley a disservice when we unfailingly compare him to Burt Bacharach. (See? We can't help ourselves.) We do it with the best of intentions, of course, and for plenty of good reasons.
Singley, like Bacharach, is a tremendously talented pop-rock singer/songwriter with a predilection for unexpected, jazz-inflected chord progressions. He, like Bacharach, tends to write memorable keyboard melodies and unabashedly sentimental lyrics that touch on love, weather, and the bittersweet passage of time. Singley is himself anything but wary of the comparison (he has performed fronting a cover band called BacharachAttack), and it's even more legitimate now that his wonderful new album Feelin' Citrus is out, a testament to his aptitude for composing and conducting lush string-and-horn arrangements, a Bacharachian (Bacharachanoid?) feather in the musical auteur's cap.
The thing is, as relatively unique as this constellation of skills and sensibilities is in the Portland of 2009, the historical firmament of American popular music is studded with ambitious, jazz-aware songwriters and arrangers working in a host of rock idioms. New York's famed Brill Building was lousy with them in the '60s; Neil Diamond, Phil Spector, Carole King, Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka, and, yes, Burt Bacharach—all of them worked there, churning out the hits, and each seems to have left an impression on Singley. In fact, it seems to me that any one of these progenitors of the "Brill Building Sound" could serve as a reasonable Singley comparison, an odd thought given just how different, say, Spector's style is from Diamond's. This is because what they had in common—and what we use Bacharach as a convenient, admittedly colorful, somewhat inaccurate, and certainly baggage-bearing cipher to gesture toward when discussing Singley—is that they wrote songs that were designed to be, and indeed became, '60s standards. Another word for this kind of standard is classic, and, as Feelin' Citrus proves, this is what Singley writes, too.
Singley began recording most of the songs that would come to comprise Feelin' Citrus while in a cabin in the wilds of Idaho back in 2007 with the same backing trio (collectively known as Pants Machine) that played on his 2006 album Lovingkindness. Production was derailed later that year, though, as guitarist Leb Borgerson suffered a finger injury, while Singley went through a major romantic break-up, and coped by burying himself in his work as a youth music teacher at Portland's nonprofit Ethos Music Center.
Singley's professional and creative worlds began to meld, however, as he recruited his colleagues at Ethos to help him arrange and overdub horn and string parts on the Pants Machine Idaho sessions. The results so thrilled Singley that he set about finishing up overtly jazzy, un-amplified arrangements for three long-gestating songs which he then recorded live at Ethos with an ensemble including fellow music instructors, members of Point Juncture, WA, and Blue Cranes saxophonist Reed Wallsmith—who subsequently joined Pants Machine for good, along with a second sax man and a new drummer. Add in a year for mixing, mastering, and hooking up with label Bladen County, and here we are in mid-2009, finally hearing Feelin' Citrus.
In spite of the varied recording conditions and strategies, and the amalgam of indie-rock-oriented and jazz-leaning tunes, Feelin' Citrus does not feel at all incoherent as an album. On the contrary, the proximity of hooky, up-tempo, indie-pop gems like single "Le Rain" to wistful, gently dissonant, fully orchestrated jazz ballads like album highlight "We'll Become Sand" brings out Singley's knack for melody in the latter, and the surprising harmonic sophistication in the former. The stylistic breadth of Feelin' Citrus comes across not as a series of genre exercises or period pieces, but as the genuinely varied expression of a gifted, multi-faceted lover and maker of popular song. What's more, it makes for what I think is one of the finest albums of 2009.
And I don't even like Burt Bacharach.
Alan Singley and Pants Machine perform at Mississippi Studios on Thursday, August 27.