The Crumbling Empire of White People – Mr. Smolin
Barry Smolin is the host of the psychedelic radio show The Music Never Stops on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles. Known as Mr. Smolin when he is away from the program, he is also a musician and high school teacher who comes from the Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition, with a smidgen of ersatz acid and carousel-pop rock thrown in for good measure. His terrain encompasses theatrical to confessional rock as well as weird, funky studio effects. He spins tales that would not be out of place on a bizarre Brian Wilson side project circa 1987. To be sure, Smolin gathers some fine Wilson-fringe players to work with him on The Crumbling Empire of White People including multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory from the Brian Wilson Band and bassist Carl Sealove from longtime Wilson songwriter and lyricist Van Dyke Parks’s outfit.
However, none of these elements coalesce into anything truly memorable on Mr. Smolin’s latest endeavor. His message is clearas the oddly non-tongue-in-cheek album title suggestsand his songs drip with earnest directness and an easy listening demo track quality that repel the listener rather than wrap him in the enfolding pulpit tales. Yes, the American Century is, indeed, past and the empire we have built rests upon castles made of sand but this audio statement is hardly original or done with a style that serve the songs well. The sonic imagery appears like dated portraits in cracked and peeling paint and his lyrical over-indulgence on lyrics bog down the story instead of hooking the listener.
Case in point, the track “Twilight in America,” which is both humorless and annoyingly lifeless. Stabs at Jimmy Buffett-like stylings on “Mata Hari” grate, as well; “Face the World” wanders into reggae land but one which doesn’t require a return visit; “Tilting” is a funeral dirge that also provokes one to exit stage left with an organ sound straight out of your strange uncle’s basement. “A Goddamn Thing” does bring the whole album temporarily to life as Smolin channels Leon Redbone via a bullet microphone and maintains a fairly cool groove for five minutes of witty rant. “Very Good in Her Nature” sounds like music found on an outtake from an early '70s Italian soft porn and ignites for a short spell. Elsewhere, pop-rock shines in the sweet strands of “The Last Thing That You Do,” but then, as all things do, the moment passes too quickly.
Contrary to his radio host pedigree, this is music for listeners who no longer indulge in psychedelics. Think of the tunes as a post-acid mnge of polite, flowery diatribes saddled with a sound that would have been comfortable in a pre-World War II theatre in Paris. If that’s a good thing, I’m not too sure. Far be it for me to ruin someone’s sober stab at effervescent luminescence. Unfortunately, none will be found here unless one’s patience to weedno pun intendedand then, maybethrough the staid arrangements to hear a few snippets of studio magic with a witty lyric is quite high.