In order to succeed in today's music industry, artists are frequently encouraged to have the widest possible appeal.
Don't ever be obscure!
After all, in this digital download age, instant gratification has become the calling card of the marketplace. To satisfy restless fans in the ADD era, where tens of millions of entertainment options are available at any possible second, there is simply no room left for an emerging artist to try to be an acquired taste. There's too little mantle space left to display a newly-discovered curio, anyway, with all of the instantaneous access we have to million of songs. Yes, it would be sheer folly for any artist to attempt to become that unlikely favorite you loudly champion in that back room to your oldest friends, as the hours turn from late to early, and as the scotch runs three fingers deeper....
..and yet, against all odds...Wes John Cichosz will be exactly that thing, should you give him the opportunity.
Cichosz's sophomore effort, "The Moon Threads a Needle" is an exceptional triumph of nuance and subtlety. Each of the nine tracks are a distinctive blend of sophisticated musicianship and incisive lyrical wit, set against a backdrop of uniquely imaginative arrangement.
It's the early solo work of Paul Simon (at his most sardonically clever and concise) blending with hints of Steely Dan at the height of their tragically sharp wit and stupefying arrangement powers. It's the muscles of Zappa's compositional prowess flexing to couple with the mellifluous delicacy and dynamics of the great late-70s solo artists: Lowell George, Loggins and Messina, and yes, Boz Scaggs.
If these seem contradictory, believe me, they should be. This record should be a convoluted, disastrous mess. However, "Moon" is quite the opposite. Wes has painstakingly synthesized these sharply distinct ingredients into an cool, organic, cohesive stew that simultaneously cooks and flows.
In a word, it's fucking brilliant. (Okay, that's two words. Here's two more: Sue me.)
The album opener and lead single, "Everybody Says," contains so many things that "everybody" would probably caution you against doing in a song these days...beyond the ridiculously irresistible chorus, of course.
There's way too much exposition before we hit the first hook. There's way too little volume going on to excite and titillate the impatient, and there's way too many key changes to grab the listener. Ah, but grab you, it does- and his songs don't exactly do a good job of letting go, once their hooks sink in. As it turns out, the acoustic exposition is utterly crucial to change your ear from hearing to listening, while the space within the Royal Scam-influenced verse lets the wine of the words breathe, and the chorus arrangement features a sophistication that is curiously never overbearing despite its playful dance.
This track is a tour-de-force of all things that encompass the totality of Cichosz: the top-shelf musicianship featuring his brilliant acoustic guitar phrasings and virtuoso-caliber saxophone; the deliberate arrangements that always sound effortless beyond the complexity they betray to the careful listener; the iconoclastic, against-the-grain philosophy of the sharp-tongued anti-hero he crafts, his voice filled to the brim with the rough-hewn character and subtle dynamics that his incredible lyrics demand. All of it is channeled through an observational-but-cutting lyrical humor that is woven to tie it all together, standing steadfast, just on the dry side of dry, just on the funny side of helpless, just on the right side of cynical despair. It's crucial to it all.
The title track spills out of that first song in the second position, almost as a plaintive sigh of relief, as a wheeze of a guitar phrase that resolves into a caesura, and then breathes into a pleasant, understated melodic theme. "The Moon Threads A Needle" is the perfect linking verb in the first paragraph of an essay, featuring beautiful reeds and a nice set of harmonies over an anti-chorus, which is really more of a resting point between complex musical passages than a hook. Still, it manages to get into your head in the most subversive of ways. The highlight actually threading the needle is a dizzying middle eight, conjuring instrumental Zappa in the perfect part of his compositional career- after he abandoned the cheap thrills of pure satire, but before he waded so far into the synclavier that he forgot how to really make a band routinely dazzle an audience.
I've always felt there was a natural link between album sequencing and a proper batting order in baseball, and so the most immediate and best pure pop song of the album, "Kittens and Ice Cream," coming in at #3 in the lineup (the best hitter for average), tickles me even beyond memes of the two titular nouns ever could. It's thematically reminiscent of "Something in 4/4 time" from the underrated 1980 Daryl Hall solo LP "Sacred Songs" (where Daryl's catchy commentary on label executives goes nuclear after a Robert Fripp guitar break with reversed rhythm patterns is inserted into an otherwise tailor-made radio hit); here we have a common-key, artfully crafted pop song with an insidiously toe-tapping chorus admonishing us of the evils of modern consumerism. The punchline is everything, though. Wes' sarcastic optimist still hopes for the best, despite "the clear and present manger never seem(ing) so far away", wishing that "one day skies will open up to equal rain." He's always riding the edge with a wink and a smile, rather than cynically diving over it. I love that.
I could go track by track and reveal all of the details I've personally mined from this incredible album, but to do that would simply rob you of the discovery I hope you dare to make for yourself. All of the other tracks contain similar musical and lyrical depth, and like all other exceptional albums, it's almost impossible for me to choose my least favorite song. The "Blackout" opening lyrical couplet is a brilliant observation on life's spell of diminishment (one I've definitely felt resonate while occasionally lost in the wilderness of my own head in an increasingly confusing music industry); "Important Stallion" showcases Wes' supple, modular, crack band of Chicago professionals in their hottest bebop shuffle, behind the beat but aggressive...a loose feel, but tight as hell; "Bottle Made of Twine" pushes the sonic climax of the album into progressive territory, in ways that are truly daring...but never truly pretentious, with breathtaking dynamic contrast through it all. "The Birds of November 6th" contains the sweetest jazz vocal harmonies, borrowing all the right things from yacht rock while checking the self indulgence at the door. "The Only Day" is a fitting exercise in the confident restraint of a great songwriter, and "When Molly Got Lost" has an undeniable roll of a rhythm paired with an infectious call and response.
In another era, Wes John Cichosz would be a Signed, Fully Financed Artist, one who would already be making his way around sold out mid-level venues with the muscle of a Columbia or Warner Bros behind him, as he gathered momentum towards the next phase of his career. Yes, he's that good. It's sad that with the evaporation of truly exploitable financial opportunities in the music industry, some truly deserving artists can't get the exposure to lead them to that Big Break. However, like Wes' lovable anti-hero, I also happen to be a not-quite-cynical optimist, preferring to believe that one day skies will open up to equal rain, too, and that the Wes John Cichoszs of the world will get their due alongside the other great songwriting virtuosos we already know. My advice is to jump on board now... because it never goes out of style to be the first one of your friends to find a gem like him. Click here for his website
Matt Walters is a retired professional poker player, theatre industry Union thug, lead guitarist and keyboard player for Roxy Swain, and the songwriter, vocalist and frontman of Sixcups. When not negotiating, recording, or performing, he is typically found at Galloping Ghost in Brookfield Illinois, setting high scores on obscure Japanese arcade games. He still resides in Oak Park, IL after all these years, and is occasionally persuaded to write about music.