Once Upon a Little Time
ohn Parish is cool. Not in the Rock Star way either which, of course, makes it even better. This is a man who appears to be able to sing an incendiary, sexy ballad as easily as he can sit under a tree and fully digest the poetry of Edmund Spenser. One gets the sense he is a musician's musician, both in and out of the studio. Still unfairly under-known in the rock world, he has slowly but surely built one of the more satisfying catalogues of work in recent memory. For most, he came by way of one Polly Jean Harvey, especially with their (sadly out-of-print in the USA) 1997 collaboration, Dance Hall at Louse Point. Anyone who simply stopped there is missing out. Working this time with Marta Collica, Giorgia Poli, and Jean-Marc Butty, Parish continues his under-the-radar solo career with the sort of confidence that is immediately identifiable as a primary source for the beauty of the record. Some records are interesting for the insecure glitches; others are boring with their lorded-over pomposity (usually disguising an extreme case of insecurity); John Parish balances on a line that recognizes that the right kind of security can breed a depth that is lost on others.
Once Upon a Little Time takes the notion of a professional musician and makes the listener long for a similar commitment from everyone in this segment of the arts. Working in the same fertile field as Mark Lanegan (but less bluesy) and Howe Gelb (but more precise), John Parish seems fit enough to never release a dud. And in a world of disappointment (to take the cynical view), this is a great feat. Parish uses his own expertise and then culls elements of past collaborations to create a cogent whole of his own. Mark Everett and Mark Linkous rear their heads. The cinematic work he has done informs his version of the popular song. His subdued but expert musicianship allows deep layers that expose more with each listen. The combination together is like the good side of seeing, after many years, someone you know and have always admired: the thrill of recognizing growth in familiar sameness can be intoxicating.
Stripped down to mostly low notes and spaces, Once Upon a Little Time is a terribly effective record, one that is certainly mellow (a few tunes "rock out") but always distances itself from becoming wallpaper. It's damn classy. Charming. Cool. Songs like "Sea Defences" languish while "Trick Pilot" jumps with even-handed fun and "The Last Thing I Heard Her Say" explores love adult-style, leaving the tight-jeaned kids behind. The lyrics to this one speak beyond of-the-moment concerns and present, instead, a life: "Did you leave me / Or I leave you?" It is at least an attempt to find definition through the blurry lens of a once-important period of time. It's this mature perspective that adds so much to the record. Someone this assuredly good doesn't need a trick. It's about the basic structure of a song and what can be done with that to still make it matter.
Once Upon a Little Time is not reaching for grandiosity or gimmicky newness. It is what it is, which is a solid, atmospheric, singer-songwriter record. Getting this will not put you on the edge of any movement. But, it is hard to imagine the person who could possibly be let down by it. With its (comparatively) mainstream intentions, this manages to be a compelling listen from beginning to end. Frankly, that is rare these days. We, the listening public, demand more and newer and weirder because we don't want to hear the same old thing. John Parish, cool as he is, takes the old and puts some gleam on it, not forgetting to keep some of the dirty crevices for us to get stuck in.
Reviewed by: Jill LaBrack
Reviewed on: 2005-10-27