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Nuanced in Triplicate – Tommy Wallach’s “I Meant It To Be Sweet”

Tommy Wallach
I Meant It To Be Sweet
Rude Fox Records

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How do they do it, these hyper-talented artists that create across a variety of platforms at a consistently high level, seemingly able to produced enduring works of art wherever their whims turn them? My guess – and it’s just a guess; I’m not one of them, unless you consider both writing extravagantly about music and making some damn fine French toast as ‘platforms’ – is that they don’t ask themselves that question and instead simply get on with it. Talent in multiple disciplines is increasingly rare in these times of widespread specialization so those that manage it, your Miranda Julys, your Nick Caves, your Dylans and David Byrnes and all, tend to stand out, polymaths in a world of one-trick ponies, and the latest to come to our attention is the recently SEM-featured Tommy Wallach, a singer-songwriter to which must also be appended novelist (We All Looked Up with be published by Simon & Schuster in 2015), journalist (Wallach’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Wired), classical pianist (studied since he was eight) that’s also trained on guitar and mandolin, and creator of musicals, one of which he produced with friends in LA. And now, not so much a cumulative gift of his gifts but more just another bloom on the branch, we get his first LP proper (there was a self-titled EP in 2008 on Decca) I Meant It To Be Sweet, an 11-track pop-theatric, folk-rock ride through a very varied psyche, where metaphors are ripe, observations wry and/or cutting and/or fearlessly self-effacing, and where most of all the songs themselves engage from their genuine cores to the confident, agile arrangements in which they’re dressed.

Mostly recorded and fully produced by Giulio Carmassi (a multi-everythingist from Pat Metheny’s Unity Group who brings no less than eight talents to the table, not counting the production itself), with a couple tracks laid down at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco, I Meant It To Be Sweet wastes no time sinking its lovely literate hooks into your defenseless ears with the glockenspiel-pinging “Cold As Christ” (opening lines “The love of Christ must have seemed cold/’cause you’d have to be/to truly love everyone/you’d need a bird’s eye view“) in which Wallach employs a lilting, often falsettoed tenor to convert the seeming critique into a backhanded empathy. As it’s as bouncing as it is bright and sparkling, its shades of darkness made bauble-like with the help of a few selected yips and handclaps, the result is more playful than either woeful or hectoring. It is, in short, a piece of stellar songcraft and that, after all, is what all of us are after.

tommy wall

At times folk house singer-songwritery but never less than lyrically and structurally spry – the umbrously-strummed “Misanthrope” (“you’re my best hope“) with its out-of-nowhere vacuum-cleaner guitar solo; the dusty romantic “Amelia Earhart” – at others jumpy as a hot gypsy jazz samba – “To Keep You Dancing,” one of the SF-recorded tracks that flits around like a Brazilian firefly and sports not one but two unhinged Django-goes-garage electric solos (Vic Wong) that might give Ry Cooder goosebumps – while at others something akin to Wilco gone off the rails – “The Charade of the Encore” with its strangulated mandolin intro and country jump rhythm – or all baroque piano ballady as on album closer “Homicidal Tendencies,” a kind of shared emotional scrapbook trawl about a friend the narrator’s known since he was ten, a guarded but moving tribute despite – or perhaps because – the lyric suffers mild elision against a close-miked piano.

Eclecticism, then, is not only not a problem on I Meant It To Be Sweet but is indeed its unifying factor, further cemented by Wallach’s easy command of form no matter which direction the needle points. Thus the writer in him is allowed its restlessness, to explore the spectrum from the near confessional – and unadornably lovely – “Occam’s Razor” that plays like a 3-minute, viola-supported therapy session to which any of us with a certain weakness for the masking lure of ‘the word’ can relate (“help me cut this cleverness and say just what I mean“) to the type hijinks mentioned above to “Delores Park”‘s dramatic and, yes, dolorous yearn (assist by Vanderslice on keys) that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an ELO album circa 1977 (minus the bombast), such is the classicist popcraft on display. There’s even an implicit, one-man doo-woppy feel to the wonderfully creepy lark that is “Whisper,” Ben Davis’ bass strut, the smart-alecky mandolin and the sarcastic organ jabs bringing a street corner suss as support.

If any complaint be had about I Meant.. it would be exactly that off-the-shelf trope-ishness – next-to-last track “Whose Heart are You Breaking Tonight” borrows (in a wonderfully shameless manner, it should be noted) from a Brill Building/Beach Boys early 60’s template that borders on parody before, mid-song, slipping into it entirely with a shock of novelty horror pop; “Helpless,” affecting as it is (falsetto chills, those xylophone taps) trespasses a bit too closely maybe into someone’s sun-sparkled, honeybeed Laurel Canyon backyard, complete with the Lindleyesque solo – but this, folks, is but a capital Q quibble, especially as both songs in question only expose their putative weaknesses when held against the luminous light of their nine other album mates. On any other quote-unquote singer-songwriter’s debut album there’s every chance they’d be chosen as singles one and two. And make no mistake, Wallach has made of his broad, insatiable curiosities an authorial strength, the whole holding together with a tensile assuredness.

In the end it all makes sense. Of course a diversely talented troubadour with a cabaret-rich voice and a Zevon-like grip of language, nuanced in triplicate, would make a record that equates to a Pulitzer-worthy short-story collection of styles. Now if only Wallach has time to tour the record before the book tour begins in 2015.