David Garland: On the Other Side of the Window

New York singer-songwriter David Garland is clearly a man who likes to take his time over things. On the Other Side of the Window is only his third album since 1986, not counting a couple of collaborations and an intriguing-sounding album of Beach Boys cover versions that was, for some reason, only released in Japan. Still, the fact that he has a day job as a presenter on a US public radio station goes a long way towards explaining the scarcity of his recorded output.

On this predominantly tasteful collection Garland presents the pop song as a series of artful strategies. Steeped in quicksilver intelligence and musical acumen, these songs easily sate the discerning listener’s desire for ambition and drama, but sacrifice some of the impulse to direct communication that characterises a great song.

This uncomfortable imbalance is well illustrated by the opening title track. A long, tranquil introduction is played out on piano, strings and percussion before Garland’s mellow, wistful baritone enters. The song is a litany of fleeting observations made from a distance: “The pavement laid/the payment made/the travelled mile/the answered smile…” It’s affecting, yet curiously static and disjointed; and matters aren’t helped when the backing chorus (consisting of members of Garland’s family) come in and trill “What was your intention? What was your invention? What was your contention? What was your convention?” in laboured style.

As the album progresses, we find ourselves deep in territory previously occupied by the likes of Magnetic Fields and The Divine Comedy: arch, witty lyrics beautifully sung to a lush instrumental accompaniment. The timbral palette is varied and engaging, with accordion, flute and harmonica adding frequent colour to the basic setting of piano and strings. Yet Garland is no melodist, and too often the music lapses into trite staccato patterns. The words, meanwhile, are persistently too clever by half, and some kind of nadir is reached on “How To” when Garland declaims “On page 290 at the top there’s a diagram marked Figure 4.23, multiply the vector of my gesture and just add the end result to all the crazy things I’ve done.”

There is much to enjoy and admire here, from the pulsing fields of distortion that surround the lengthy “Distance” to the concrète clusters animating “Phantom Limb.” But, for all Garland’s vocal gifts, the eloquence of his texts and the floridity of the music ultimately become wearisome. On the closing “Pastorale,” Garland absents himself entirely in favour of an untreated field recording of water and birdsong. It’s a welcome act of self-effacement that one wishes had been adopted more often.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 13, 2005)

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