Jefferson Friedman & Craig Wedren: On In Love
Performed by: American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) with Craig Wedren & Jefferson Friedman
(New Amsterdam 056)
Composers Jefferson Friedman and Craig Wedren have joined forces to shove their different-yet-connected musical worlds successfully closer together into the album On In Love. With the ensemble ACME, the two have constructed a group of songs that are dramatic, unpredictable, and beautifully crafted, serving up both both punch and substance.
Many may know of Jefferson Friedman via his stunning 2011 album of string quartets, and his composing for this current album bears a similar level of craft and aural sensitivity. In the late 90s he served as keyboardist and backup vocalist for the avant-rock group Shudder To Think, for which Wedren was the lead singer and songwriter. According to the album press release, they saw one another as creative kindred spirits, and that connection ultimately led them to create this album together. Although I’m not so sure about the description of the music as “pop music from an as-yet-undiscovered planet,”—it’s not that weird (to my ears), plus the songs are purportedly about the various incarnations of love, and isn’t writing songs about love exactly what earthlings do? Nevertheless, it is a very compelling listen, full of unexpected twists and turns of the sort that make the listener stop to really pay attention, as well as melodies that stick in the mind, asking to be hummed later on.
The first track “Tarrying” begins gently with Wedren’s slightly plaintive tenor vocals atop light-as-a-feather piano and string harmonics, which are quickly joined by equally light drums; just present enough to augment the pulse initially set by the piano. Each chorus/verse segment rises in volume and intensity like a wave, only to return to the original gentleness of the opening, until the final section of the song piles on more and more intensity, taking the wave to a crest that breaks on shore.
“Fight Song” is just that—an ornery, fast-paced slalom during which Wedren’s vocals become increasingly creepy with the addition of fish tank style reverb. I especially love the break (indeed, this album sports many excellently satisfying breaks) of angry brass, piano and drums that clears out the busy textures for a few seconds without losing intensity. “Famous Planets” is a gorgeous song accompanied by string quartet and tastefully employed synth textures; the last track of the album features an acoustic(ish) version of the song with guitar, piano, and singer (included: a little nod to Steve Reich’s electric counterpoint towards the end of the track).
The production of On In Love effectively walks the tightrope between pop and classical production techniques; happily, the acoustic instruments sound like themselves and are not excessively amplified/electrified, and although there are plenty of effects employed, they are used in service of the overall musical vision and don’t hog the aural stage. Even songs like “WARZ” and “Refuse to Die” (my personal favorite song of the album for it’s jagged yet infectiously quirky nature) have a more chamber ensemble-oriented sound than one might expect for their styles, yet they are totally convincing; a testament to Friedman’s composing and arranging chops. The most “plugged in” music can be heard about two-thirds of the way into “Glacier,” when electric guitar and bass join the acoustic ensemble for a full-on big stadium-style rock band ending (but with added Xenakis-style string shredding).
Similarly, Wedren’s singing is nuanced and natural sounding; even at big dramatic moments it never reaches the point of self-indulgence that one might expect. Rather than being the “front man,” he works with the ensemble as another instrument to get the point across.
Although it is clearly stated on the album website that this project was only intended to be a record, it has been performed live a few times already, and I’m sure that this combination of musical forces would make for a great concert experience. Whether you’re into Fugazi or Messiaen, My Bloody Valentine or Scelsi, there is something to be gleaned from the music of On In Love. It’s a beguiling record that is bound to stay in listening rotation for a good while.