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Greg Ashley - Painted Garden

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Artist: Greg Ashley

Album: Painted Garden

Label: Birdman

Review date: Mar. 21, 2007

With each successive album, whether solo or with his band the Gris Gris, Oakland’s Greg Ashley continues to both refine and expand on his version of the New Weird American sound. While Ashley isn’t a visionary in the same sense as Roky Erickson and Skip Spence (or other turned-on musical drop-outs from the Love Generation), he’s certainly indebted to them and travels similar musical lost highways. In the case of the above – easily identified, though certainly not the only, precedents of Ashley’s – their genius and legacy is forever intertwined with psychosis and reclusion. I know very little about Greg Ashley as his past relates to the hard times Spence and Erickson fell upon, but it’s equally as irrelevant to understanding and appreciating his music, as knowing about Roky and Skip’s time in an asylum is to being moved by The Evil One or Oar.

Still, Ashley makes some seriously far-out sounds. The basic musical template of Painted Garden, as on 2004’s Medicine Fuck Dream, is simple enough: pop songs built on folk, country, and blues forms, with an occasional nod to classic R&B (“Pretty Belladonna”) or Songbook. But Ashley takes these familiar sounds and drapes them in all manner of ethereal soundscapes, bells and whistles, hallucinogenic found sounds and free jazz skronk. While distorting a roots template with reverb and fractured constructions is nothing new in 2007, the tension that Ashley creates between the melodic and more warped elements in his songs is indeed unique. Unlike other spacey contemporary troubadours, Ashley's hooks certainly aren’t buried or meandering, in fact they’re quite immediate – at times positively toe-tapping (“Fisher King”), at others, hauntingly beautiful (“Caroline and the Orange Tree,” “Sailing With Bobby”) – but they exist wonderfully at odds with a production aesthetic that transports them from the terrestrial to the celestial. Medicine Fuck Dream, however, was a decidedly more lo-fi affair than what we’re given here. And while Painted Garden occasionally hints at the sort of slick, expansive cosmic sheen Dave Friedman has made de rigueur, thankfully that sound is merely a single element of a diverse yet fully cohesive and even-sounding recording.

Ashley’s music has a built-in awareness of American musical history, which makes clear that he’s not working in some sort of vacuum, running on his own twisted creative energy and that alone. In fact, I’m willing to wager his record collection is a stunner. Yet, his synthesis of those various forms – finger-picking folk songs, soul ballads, Sun Ra-style cosmic jazz, Tin Pan Alley pop – still feels organic and original. With that in mind, another ’60s oddball worth referencing would be Van Dyke Parks. Yet, where Parks cloaked everything in irony and knowing glances, Ashley makes the whole synthesis seem completely unaffected and true.

By Nate Knaebel

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