Sunday, November 25, 2007

Review: The Wrong Button - Stephen Newcombe

Back in 2005 Stephen Newcombe had finished the album The Wrong Button, the 3rd in a trilogy of albums that nearly scored him a recording contract (although the details of that story are a tad bit vague).

I just recently found Stephen's album, as it was emailed to me, but sometimes first impressions can mean everything. And such was the case with The Wrong Button. The album is a pure salute to analog recording and Indie production. Right from the first song, the highly symbolic and ambient song "If it's not broken", Stephen Newcombe foreshadows dark and wonderful things to come. The album begins with peculiar laughing over a music box, until the character of the album is suddenly awakened from what seems to be a dream. A radio turns on and plays a strange organ song as thunder and rain quickly dawn on him. He begins to walk away as a telephone is heard in the distance. He walks toward it as the thunder and rain begin to pour heavier on the man. He opens a door and enters, locking out the rain. He answers the phone to hear the other end quickly hang up.

And that's the way this album starts!

We're off to a very strange, vivid beginning. Moving into the first song "Automata", Stephen makes a very dense production with backing vocals, varied percussion, bells, flutes, and an arsenal of other instruments. Throughout the album Stephen uses such a wide variety of instruments that could surprise Brian Wilson himself.

The album truly is an eccentric piece of work. Complex musical arrangements, complex production, and a very developed story line. The album has strange, yet beautiful interludes between nearly every song, and between nearly every interlude! And while it may seem like this large amount of story building could take away from the songs, The Wrong Button manages something that almost no one can do. It immerses you inside it.

This album is meant to be listened to from start to finish, with no breaks in between. It really is a trip. The interludes between the songs truly drag you in and keep you waiting patiently for the next song. And when the songs do come on the album shines even more. Dark sections of scary organ are alleviated by jazz piano and loads of doo doo doo's. The album can really bring you full circle from fear to tears to comical laughs.

But the true power of Stephen's song writing hit me at track 5. The track "Sing For Us" scares the living hell out of me. The track is almost a funeral hymn played with guitar, bells, organ and several other instruments. But the truly eerie part are the babies he recorded and looped over the song. Stephen Newcombe practically forces you to think about the frailty of birth, life and death. But if that song is too scary, he loosens up with the Edward Scissorhands-esque "Rolling Away". The backing vocals of ladies in this song work perfectly with the bongos and bass that drive this song.

Around the middle part of the album things continue smoothly, even introducing some laughs on the track "Careful, You'll Fall". But as with most things in this album, the smiles quickly fade as one of the albums strongest tracks "Talking To Myself" appears. This song, which went to #5 on a while back is much more pop than most of the songs, and even feels a bit jazzy to me, but Stephen really explores on this track and flexes all of his musical muscles to deliver nearly a full 6 minutes of music.

From this point on the album focuses a lot more on the story telling aspect of the album, picking up on concepts earlier in the album (the caller on the phone who hung up?). And while I would love to write about it, it's much more fun to figure it out alone.

The album ends with the goofiest track of the album, Space Rocket. The song screams child hood, but remains as sophisticated as the rest of his songs. He creatively crafts a middle section of this song to suddenly turn to a dark a cappella section, then suddenly return to the former anthem for children. The song continues to change to simple talking with altered voices before moving to another section with keyboard and accordian. As the final words "nothing ever ends, it's all just unresolved..." the album fades out and it does feel more than a bit unresolved.

I was completely mesmerized by this album, and to say that I couldn't figure it out sort of bugs me. The album is so complex, and so deep, that I'm not sure I will ever be able to fully relate to it. I really don't know what the heck he is talking about a lot of times. But should that stop you from trying? Absolutely not! Stephen Newcombe's latest album is outstanding! It is absolutely beautiful and moving, and I hope he finds the ambition (or whatever it may be that he needs) to make some more music A.S.A.P.

Fortunately, Stephen has made his whole album available for free on his blog.

Download the album now!

Preview some tracks here.

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