Thursday, June 25, 2009

Profile: Epic Soundtracks

(As published in B-Side, 1995)

Epic Soundtracks--an English pop romantic whose music glows with the absorbed influences of Phil Spector, Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, and Sister Lovers-era Alex Chilton--is feeling somewhat defensive these days. First of all, on the eve of his first U.S. tour, he worries that some of those most likely to enjoy his music may not have heard of him yet. Second, he fears that when they do, the information may come burdened with adjectives like "old" and "retro."

"I do love a lot of music from the past," he explains, "which is only to be expected because there's so much more old music than new music. But I also think the songwriting in the '60s was much better than it is today. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, that Brill Building, pop songwriting--that's a dying art, and that's what I'm trying to latch onto."

Change My Life, Soundtracks’ third album for Bar/None, features such efforts at latching onto this dying art as “You Can Be My Baby”' (which with its mid-’60s Beatles flavor could've probably passed for a Fab Four outtake on Anthology One or Two), “Stealaway” (which with its classic “Be My Baby”' backbeat manages to echo not only Spector and Wilson but also Gerry Goffin and Carol King), “Wild Child” (which with its Jerry Lee Lewis-and-Iggy Pop quoting title and borrowed Carpenters lyrics still manages to sound like a Nick Drake tribute) and “Sweet Sixteen” (which with its Chuck Berry-and-Sam Cooke-quoting lyrics and its Burt Bacharach-on-downers ambiance ought to win over anyone not yet appealed to by the aforementioned tracks).

When horns show up--as they do, for instance, on the “Gloria”-derived “Landslide”--they sound punchy enough for Stax, and when they disappear--as they do, for instance, on the instrumental “Ring the Bells”--leaving Soundtracks' piano and two-man string section alone, one sees flashes of hazy-around-the-edges '60s films about young lovers running toward each other through fields full of wildflowers.

And what Soundtracks doesn't derive from pop he derives from gospel. The expression "steal away," after all, comes from the Negro-spiritual phrase book, and titles like “There's a Light Up in the Sky” (not to mention “There's Been a Change,” “I'll Sing a Hymn,” and “I Believe,” from his 1994 album, Sleeping Star) brim with inspiration. Yet Epic insists that religious yearnings as such have nothing to do with his music.

"I don't use that language because I'm religious. I'm probably the opposite, really. I use it for its feel. Alex Chilton has a song called 'Jesus Christ,' but he has said that it's not a religious thing that he's doing. I think, like me, he's drawn to the emotional content of gospel music and using it as a reference point."

Also like Alex Chilton, Soundtracks is drawn to the emotional content of the Chilton songs “Nightime” and “Thirteen”--so much so, in fact, that he's hidden a live medley of the two at the end of Change My Life.

"The end of the album is really 'The Wishing Well,'" says Soundtracks of the album's eleventh track. "But I put the Alex medley on there because I thought it had a really good feel to it and because it's a live recording of my current live band. I thought that since the current lineup doesn't really play on the album, this would show what the live band sounds like."

All this talk of Alex Chilton, Phil Spector, and Brian Wilson brings up the obvious question of the degree to which Epic's love for their music renders him vulnerable to the mental instability that often seems to be a necessary side effect of seeking salvation in audio perfectionism. One can't help asking, in other words, whether Soundtracks balances his often melancholy pop songs with hopeful lyrics because he fears that, deep down, the quest for the perfect pop song, like so many romantic quests, might be doomed to end in illusion.

"My stuff operates on different levels," he concedes, "and people who aren't really up on the music that has influenced me get mine all wrong and hear only the prettiness. But I'm latching onto something more. Take 'I've Seen the Light' or 'I Believe.' I think there was a turning point in my life, which wasn't religious so much as a feeling of simply getting through the worst of it and coming out in one piece."

And he believes that a large, if so far largely untapped, audience exists for his kind of music.

"That's the difficult thing," he observes, "trying to reach these people who you know exist and who you know would like your stuff if only they could hear it. My music's really miles away from the 'alternative rock' scene. It has nothing to do with Smashing Pumpkins.

“There's a lot of hope in my music, and the last thing I want is for people to hear it and say, 'Oh, that's sad,' because that's not what it's about."

Epic Soundtracks passed away in 1997 at the age of thirty-eight.

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