Pianist/composer Josh Nelson sees the world differently. A restless, bold dreamer, he uncovers the extraordinary in people, places, and things we often take for granted - with an uncanny sense of beauty, humanity, and musical imagination. He did it in the 2011 sci-fi/steam punk album Discoveries, which kicked off his well-received, multi-media "Discovery Project" series of shows traveling up and down the West Coast. He did it again with even more impact on the 2015 Exploring Mars album and show, re-imagining a semi-inhabitable planet of one beyond Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles." He and go-to vocalist Kathleen Grace even produced a radio-ready love song, the exquisitely heartbreaking "How You Loved Me On Mars."
Now, Nelson has turned to his native Los Angeles, turning over monuments, glittery tourist traps, and familiar landscapes to reveal the character beneath the façade in The Sky Remains, released on Sept. 15, 2017.
"You can glean the future growth of the city by looking back at its history. So many things about L.A. have left an indelible impression on me, and there seems to be so many themes yet to be explored that I think I could almost do another volume," Nelson explained in a press release from Mouthpiece Music. "These projects under the Discovery Project umbrella all feel very cinematic to me."
Through 10 breathtaking compositions - a mix of vocals and instrumentals, seven of them originals - Nelson and his band seek to open up the L.A. scene that once launched a thousand dreams. Nelson co-wrote two of the songs with Grace, the title track and "Run." He borrowed tunes from Joshua Johnson ("On The Sidewalk"), Russell Garcia ("Lost Souls Of Saturn"/Fantastica), and Elliott Smith ("Pitseleh") to pose infinite possibilities in a place long considered the greener pasture.
Nelson spent some time performing tunes from The Sky Remains before a live, appreciative audience in an immersive, multi-media tour before compiling the album. Where Exploring Mars leaned toward esoteric, lofty cinematic sound effects (save for that one pristine love song), The Sky Remains sticks closer to home, in a true, earthy soundtrack. The new album is full of melodic, heightened drama, fantastic, lyrical chases, Kathleen Grace's poignant leading lady longing, and an eerie nostalgia stuck in the early Beach Boys '60s (before music became into fashion).
The opening, "Bridges And Tunnels," could very well be the new and improved remake of "La La Land," as the ingénue and her jaded suitor walk familiar streets at the break of dawn. Nelson's glittery piano quickens in suitable step, as Chris Lawrence's trumpet melts and swims with Grace and Lillian Sengpiehl's sun-dappled vocals.
"The Sky Remains" and "Run" are two of the most compelling vocal pieces, in large part because of vocalist/songwriter Kathleen Grace and her ability to spark a flame melodically. L.A.'s famous Griffith Park inspired the piano and vocal title track. Grace and Nelson deftly tuck the sordid narrative of violence - the man behind the Observatory and Theatre murdered his own wife — into the universal theme of holding onto beautiful memories in spite of inevitable contamination.
Lyrically, the theme touches on important men of history, hinting at the power play within the play that birthed an industry. In typical Nelson fashion, the song's narrative is sung from the perspective of Griffith's doomed wife. "Look over there, watch the water. It's a river I played in as a girl. You can see far, all the way to the ocean, high upon this hill. At night my colonel brings me here to watch the stars. From here we count the constellations, Mercury and Mars. What is remembered, how do we forget, when men change history, in the smoke of a cigarette. What is a story, a picture in a frame, the city's different now, but the sky remains the same."
Rhythmically, the lyrics ascend, as if rising above the ugliness until we're high enough to only see what remains untouched by men.
"Run" sounds as if it's another lovely, lilting, country-tinged love song from Kathleen Grace. It is, but not in the traditional sense. Again, Nelson tucks an important story about an important figure (1936 Berlin Olympian Mack Robinson) into a universal feeling of euphoria, rising above, "when you're lost and alone in the world on your own, run, run, 'cause you don't need this kind of welcome back home."
The lone horn - strong and vibrant - represents this athlete-turned-Pasadena-activist who was overshadowed by younger brother, the baseball legend Jackie, and 200-meter dash record holder Jesse Owens.
Leave it to Nelson to pay extraordinary tribute to the seemingly ordinary, a man who chose to do good in his hometown over the history books.
Beyond the extraordinary story is this extraordinary, universal song, which can apply to just about any situation outside Mack Robinson's small, heroic fortune. I will forever return to "Run," when the world brings me down.
In another time in the not-so-distant past, when radio still enjoyed free-thinking DJs, this would've reached #1 in Casey Kasem's Top 40 Countdown, and every weekend warrior would be playing it in a loop on a morning run.
The one weak point lyrically comes in the middle of the album, in "Ah, Los Angeles." Musically, it starts as a promising jazz instrumental, full of bass and horn contrasts on the verge of a big band convergence. Then, the instrumental sinks into a lyrical cliché.
Lillian Sengpiehl sings here, with a strident quality, overly earnest, in parts. The opera soprano does not have Kathleen Grace's emotional sensitivity or pop sense - and it shows. The lyrics themselves aren't helping to lighten her load. Instead, they belabor the point and point out the obvious: "Here I am in this lonely place. Crowded streets leave me empty. So I write. I offer my soul to the page. Yes I write. Searching for something. Blind to everything around me. Los Angeles, I must cling to you. Los Angeles, show me how to feel your sunshine too. I wander your hills of golden brown. I love you so much, you bitter town..." Not exactly a Seal enclave.
Nelson wrote the song himself, inspired by John Fante's classic novel, "Ask The Dust," featuring "a young writer's struggle in 1930s Los Angeles," yet lacking that young writer's lust for originality.
Instrumentally, however, the Nelson-led compositions are untouchable, full of life, angular motion, motion picture references ("Lost Souls Of Saturn," "The Architect"), scintillating mysteries unraveling around every corner ("Stairways"), loads of Hitchcock feels ("Pacific Ocean Park"), a little Better Than Ezra in the guitar ("Pitseleh"), and Faustian arguments displayed in mirror images ("On The Sidewalk") — musical feasts for the senses, and an honest look at the city that shaped Nelson.
Of the instrumentals, the soul-stirring, heart-racing "Lost Souls Of Saturn" — with its nitpicky, swirling percussive Latin majesty — is an exceptional masterpiece, worth zooming in for a closer listen, over and over again.
L.A. is much more than bumper-to-bumper drivers, aging stars, and strip mall call girls. Josh Nelson digs deeper for some truly original musical gems that show the better side of the City of Angels, one worth remembering.