Just Before Dark
Good Morning Monkey Records
ecorded at the Largo in Los Angeles, Mike Viola’s Just Before Dark sounds as such; there’s a bit of twilight in each song, something dusky in the James Taylor-style fingerpicking and last-breath-of-sun ballads. Most of all, there’s that undertone of urgency akin to fleeting light. Though originally intended for the studio, it seems natural that these songs, which mirror life’s unexpected turns, would benefit from a live touch. Where, in a parallel manner, anything can happen. Here, Viola creates an environment where things just happen to be beautiful and at ease.
Many know Viola for his pop/rock work with his band Candy Butchers. Here, things remain poppy, in a classic Paul Simon/Cat Stevens sense of the word, but more literal and stripped than previous CB albums. On the album-opening “Hair of the Dog,” Viola recalls a morning he couldn’t get out of bed: “If I pulled myself together / It wouldn’t mean a thing / I’ve always been the one who finds away / To turn it around / When I’m going down that road.” This brings to mind the Alexie Murdoch lyric “Sometimes I feel too strong to carry on.” When he follows with the bracing “facing the mirror, trying to imitate myself/obliterate myself,” the listener can further relate to the strange, see-saw nature of strength: as it builds, it can both uplift and weigh you down.
After the shady-toned attic charm of “Sandi Bright,” the soothing piano of “Numbercrunch” evokes the best of Billy Joel (“She’s Got a Way,” for instance) in its settling, haunting nature. The song opens with the hesitant words: “Who invited me here?” but rather than question fate further, Viola sweetly ushers it in: “I know that heaven sent you / To take me along for the ride.” As the weary music-business title “Numbercrunch” hints, however, outside expectations can often gnaw at the things we cherish the most.
Maintaining this intimate atmosphere, “Sundrenched” opens the listener into still, narrative moments of solitude: “Sundrenched / Sitting on a park bench / Drumming on my knees / No particular place to be.” The soft tread of disturbance in his voice suggests that simple moments such as these can easily turn into grounds for some of our biggest decisions: “I’ve prepared for it / Prepared to grin and bear it / Choices will be few / But one of them will have to do.” On the cutting “Clusterfuck,” the album digs even deeper into this Mr. Brightside theme as sharp words glide atop anticipating, frigid piano: “I keep my head in the clouds / My grave’s in the ground / I’m dragging my leash / And I’m putting on pounds.” But, with miracle touch, there’s love to help lift the weight: “A woman who listens to / Everything I say/ Though I’m the same old book / She is the very next page.” When he repeats these last lines, what sounded real before chills your bones with its cinematic height and striking honesty.
A beautiful duet augmented by setting-sun harmonicas, “A Way to Say Goodbye’s” phrases are sung in unison, rather than back and forth, conversation-style. This approach helps break down an individual perspective into a shared experience: “Piecing together the life I really lived / You, and I, and them.” “Rowing Song”, with its swaying melody, is a classic ode to revisiting the past, and displays some of Viola’s edgy sense of humor: “Man it’s really good to see ya / Wouldn’t wanna be ya.”
The record closes appropriately with the song “Just Before Dark,” on which Viola looks back upon the past, and exposes the unsteady, shape-shifting nature of dreams. This is subject matter fit for dusk—a space of time that lies between light and darkness, where certainty becomes ambiguous, and our eyes struggle to see what is there, and what exactly lies ahead. On Just Before Dark, Viola makes glowing shapes out of dark images and sheds a light on the dreary places. Because, as the hopeful spots of the record point out, before we reach our darkest points, sometimes just the right star peeks out.
Reviewed by: Sue Bell
Reviewed on: 2006-01-25