Balladry & Soliloquy is the second volume of the yearlong 4-volume Anthems & Antithets project. Balladry & Soliloquy focuses on personal songs and songs with stories. All told in different guises: Americana, art song, piano ballad, power pop, and a Bee Gees cover.
The industry may recommend nine-song collections every 18 months, or just a stream of singles, but Brian Woodbury has other plans, to the tune of 100 linked songs in a single year. With Balladry & Soliloquy, the Los Angeles-based songwriter and composer delivers the second volume of his yearlong, four-volume Anthems & Antithets project. Each volume explores a different musical mood and mode: the comic Levity & Novelty (released in February), the personal Balladry & Soliloquy (released in July), and two upcoming sets: the political Antipathy & Ideology, and the experimental Rhapsody & Filigree.
A collection of 23 songs in almost as many genres, Balladry & Soliloquy begins with a two-minute abstract of what is to come. With its conflation of raga, roots, and psychedelia, “By Way of Introduction” sets the ground rules, paradoxically permissive and strict: for this collection of personal and confessional songs, all styles are in play, from cabaret to concert hall to honky tonk, but exactly none is taken lightly. In an age when stylistic reference is easy as cut and paste, Woodbury samples from the inside, via compositional imagination and mastery.
You never know what is coming next in a Brian Woodbury song. All you know is that it will be executed at a fastidious level of detail and thematic development. As a composer/arranger, Woodbury seems to have the entire 20th century on tap. He studied songwriting with Tom Lehrer and music composition with Pauline Oliveros. His mentor, Van Dyke Parks, once said, “Not since… the wondrous works of young Brian Wilson… have I heard sound of this romantic design.” Credits include Disney cartoon themes, theater scores, Bollywood orchestrations, his own big band, and a blue-state country project.
While Balladry & Soliloquy contains only one cover—the Bee Gees—a spirit of irreverent homage abides. Many songs on Balladry & Soliloquy declare genre coordinates within a few seconds: the Skynyrd-invoking ‘70s young love summer anthem “All Right;” the New York City dreamer’s comeuppance tale “Don’t Let it Hit You on the Way Out” rendered in driving power pop; “Spontaneous,” in which the singer rues his inhibitions in a flurry of virtuoso rhymes over a chamber-swing arrangement that bows to Django and Grappelli. Other songs, like the near-death narrative “His Last Regret” tell whole-cloth stories with gravity and unbroken focus.
Often, genre recedes and the style play is moment-to-moment. The through-composed, angular pop rocker “All the People” wonders what became of all the people the singer wanted to have sex with in college. The moving chamber pop “Love Is Not the Answer” goes deep in its deconstruction of the language of love, dividing time between Bacharach and dissonant modernism. Woodbury’s restless eclecticism itself provides the theme of the skittish, ABBA-inspired “Little Bitta This, Little Bitta That,” sung by guest vocalist Kathi Funston in a Swedish accent.
In a time when the likes of Mount Eerie and Sun Kil Moon have redefined what it means to be a confessional writer, Woodbury’s formalism is out of step with the prevailing language of self. He operates in the tradition of Cole Porter and the great writers of musical theater, resourceful with rhyme and meter, meaning-driven: Every conceit and character to pass through these songs is developed and seen through.
As song follows unique and fully realized song, however, the fabric of a personality and a life passion emerges, diligently earned—a voice of playful self-deprecation; hurts, hopes, and dreams disguised in irony; and many crowning moments of artless, raw emotion, rendered in stunningly precise and elastic music and language.
– John Burdick
- All Right, a rollicking country song about lost virginity
- (He’s Got That) New Car Smell, a New Orleans second line tune about a fleeting infatuation
- When I Think of Love, a love song built on a Beatles lyric, with lush Beach Boys harmony and a harpsichord solo
- Love Is Not the Answer, expansive chamber pop exploration of romantic myths
- All the People, angular pop rock that wonders what happened to past crushes
- Spontaneous, a gypsy jazz number bemoaning & celebrating the inability to think on one’s feet
- His Last Regret, a piano ballad about a Golden Gate Bridge suicide attempt
- Guest vocalist Dudley Saunders delivers a soulful cover of the Bee Gees’ I Started a Joke
- Daddy’s Little Girl, an Americana ballad about a young girl torn between divorced parents
- Guest vocalists Kathi Funston & Tulasi Rain deliver Little Bitta This, Little Bitta That, an ABBA pastiche about the personal need for musical variety
The vocal and instrumental arrangements are intricate and detailed (peppered with strings, woodwinds, brass, vibes, mandolin, pedal steel), performed by the likes of guitarists Marc Muller (Bruce Springsteen), Jim “Kimo” West (Weird Al) and Sam Woodbury (Vance Joy), bassist Edwin Livingston, drummers Jonathan Feinberg, Mark Pardy, Andy Sanesi & Joe Berardi, pianist John Thomas Oaks, violinist Sara Parkins, cellist Maggie Parkins, woodwind player Mark Hollingsworth, trumpeter Chris Tedesco.
BRIAN WOODBURY is a particularly beautiful example of a maverick in the mainstream and double agent in the pop industry. Yes, even in the middle of Holly Schmollywood and between Disney and Broadway, there are some who stand out, delivering entertainment that’s sophisticated and heartfelt. People like musical theater composer David Yazbek, songwriters Jill Sobule, Lisa Loeb or Joe Moe (whose “Mainland” Woodbury produced).
With Woodbury (who trained as tunesmith & wordwright by Tom Lehrer and Pauline Oliveros, also made musicals, post-modern jazz compositions, quirky pop, country songs and music for children’s TV in Los Angeles – for example for Disney’s Bear in the Big Blue House and Book of Pooh) ReR went all in from the start and put him in the Hall of Fame with his debut “All White People Look Alike”(1987).
After the last Variety Orchestra (2004), Anthems & Antithets pulls out all the stops, with over 80 songs in a quatrology: [Volumes 1 & 2] Levity & Novelty and Balladry & Soliloquy lie in front of me.
BW orchestrates them with acoustic, nylon, electric guitars, bass, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, keyboards, amateur fiddle, autoharp, percussion, programming. Two dozen little helpers add specific colors with drums, accordion, piano, vibes, strings, flutes, saxes, brass and vocals. Catchy tunes with lyrics where “my Birkenstocks” and “my chiropractor”, “Hyundai” and “Facebook” receive unexpectedly poetic honors, and “dinosaurs” rhymes with “ancestors” or “mellotron” with “marathon”.
Polished schmaltz like from the Golden and Silver musical decades, like the Beach Boys, high on the Beatles and The Big Bang sitcom spirit. As if the songs weren’t verbose and over-the-top enough, he gives you a delirious soul chorus. He describes underachievers, psychopaths and condemned sinners and also knows why they are: His brain makes him do it. Whether Ipecac or chutzpah, whether Natchez or “Pasadeeny,” no foreign word, no place is foreign to him, no “Complicated Rhythm” or style, whether exotic, Latin, country or the epic madness of his “Old Time Prog” overkill (“Go get you some of that old time prog/To help escape the mainstream gulag/It’s still my favorite dead horse to flog.”)
BW bathes in sophisticated comedy – for example in “Perfectly Awful” sung with Deb Hiett – like Scrooge McDuck in ducats. He puts entire theater acts and almost more words than Joyce’s “Circe” chapter into 3-4 minutes. Tevye meets Brian who encourages the audience to sing along on Golgotha! Don Knotts gets an obituary, the ex gets a kick.
“A Man with No Foible”? Ha! BW’s songs are full of quirks. Why not hold a mirror up to your compatriots? “Just Like Hitler” as a reciprocal murderous argument, accompanied by brass bolero, and audience applause. And “This is the best country ever. It’s so obvious from my point of view that I don’t even have to think about it”
The 23 songs that follow [Volume 2] are much less upbeat and sarcastic, but still flippant and tongue-in-cheek. Form – from Charlston to violins, sometimes pianistic, sometimes soft rock-intimate – follows feeling, and the feeling is darker, the topics are more introverted. Missing a friend, a smile, “sponta-NEE-ity”, balance, hippie-esque innocence. (“Take a hike/Take a hike/Leave only footprints.”) Renew yourself in nature; remember, be content. Chase on a bike, nose in the wind, for a new song. Choosing between “Daddy’s little girl and Mama’s only friend”; doubt the path you have chosen, the set goal, but also doubt turning your back just because it got difficult. “Leaving is losing.” But also being abandoned.
“B.Y.O.B.” stands for bring your own beer, but brings no consolation to a party pooper. The only thing that helps is the Bee Gees (“I started a joke/Which started the whole world crying/But I didn’t see/That the joke was on me”) sung by guest vocalist Dudley Saunders (once with Chris Cochrane’s Suck Pretty), with drums by Joe Berardi (from Non Credo!). Or “all you can do is nothing” but sigh.
But “with a little bitta this, but don’t forget a little bitta that” some things look different again. And what a touching Philemon & Baucis anthem BW sings, with accordion – and flute-beauty, string swing on “Take Me Back” (“Back into your deepest kiss/Under your familiar skin/Back into your endless stare/Where we breathed each other in/And the mystery that draws me/To the code I’ll never crack/Take me back”).
— Rigobert Dittman, Bad Alchemy
Woodbury is a Los Angeles based songwriter, lyricist, producer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and all around wacky guy who composes for television, stage musicals, and his own quirky pop releases, which are anything but regular — though 2020 will be different with the Anthems & Antithets four disc set — two releases have already come out, and two further releases are promised, Balladry & Soliloquy being the second of four. The first of the four, Levity & Novelty, was more or less an album of novelty songs delivered in his unique style with dozens of other musicians and singers helping out, and while this one is really not that much different from it, it’s packed with 23 songs, most of which are guaranteed to put a smile on your face, but a few with more serious topics (like “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “His Last Regret” or “Going Through Emotions”), but all are immediately identifiable as Woodbury’s work, a unique sound, borrowing from numerous genres but never sounding too serious or too attached to any one — I guess that’s what happens when you’ve got your hands is so many different things, musically speaking. There are a lot of standouts in this set: Sounding a bit like a soundtrack for an imaginary play, “Little Bitta This, Little Bitta That,” sung by guest singer Kathi Funston is almost guaranteed to remind of early 70s Olivia Newton John without the country shtick, a really solid pop song that will get stuck in the listener’s head. The fun romp of the dixieland-ish “New Car Smell” is barely a minute twenty seconds in length, but a load of fun with off-kilter lyrics like, “He’s got that new car smell, But he don’t ring her bell, He isn’t half as hot As he seemed on the lot, So how was she to tell?” The freedom conveyed via “On My Bike” is even more refreshing, with outstanding musicianship all around, and the lyric of “(You Break a Heart) You Own It” was never so true, a serious message delivered from father to son through experience. The fun country twang of “BYOB” features some superb pedal steel and banjo from primary cohort Marc Muller, and of course it leads into the album’s only cover, Woodbury’s interpretation of the sad Bee Gees tune “I Started a Joke.” On one level or another, every song here is superb, spanning the range of lyrical and stylistic content. My stock recommendation is to take a trip over to Woodbury’s Bandcamp page and take a listen for yourself.— Peter Thelen, Exposé