- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

Pitting an unreconstructed ‘70s folkie with a funky neo singer-songwriter — it’s a cruel exercise. But the cycle of pop music trends, and simple coincidence, make it irresistible. Dan Fogelberg, the bygone Southern California fern-bar

phenom, is set to release his first studio album in 10 years, hard on the heels of Jack Johnson’s sophomore record.

In one respect, Mr. Fogelberg couldn’t have picked a better time for a comeback. Singer-songwriters are hip again. Over the past couple of years, sensitive-dude crooners have strapped on acoustic guitars and found enthusiastic young audiences for quiet, reflective pop music.

Witness, in addition to Mr. Johnson, David Gray, Martin Sexton and John Mayer. They have succeeded despite, or maybe because of, the ubiquity of alt-metal, punk-pop and other less-than-soothing sounds.

Mr. Fogelberg was scoring hits around the same time Led Zeppelin was the biggest band in the world. These days, though, singer-songwriters have a few sonic tricks up their sleeve. Mr. Fogelberg, as you shall see, does not.

Dan Fogelberg

Full Circle

Mailboat Records

Dan Fogelberg has been summarily thawed after 25 years of cryogenic preservation. His new album was found in a time capsule.

How else to explain “Full Circle”?

Refusing to slavishly follow trends is a fine and admirable thing; sounding hopelessly outdated is not.

Sure, the music on “Circle” is pleasant enough. Mr. Fogelberg is an able guitar player, and his facility for melody and harmony is frequently … I’ll say it — lovely.

The problem is his phrasing. And his unrelieved earnestness. And the ponderous lyrics. This is cringe-inducing stuff, people.

First, the vocal delivery: Mr. Fogelberg enunciates not just every syllable of every word, but every letter, too. So to speak, he crosses every t and dots every i.

The earnestness: He betrays no sense of irony that I can detect. “Circle” opens with a pretentious wall-of-synth instrumental overture, which tells me he sincerely means every note of what follows.

Now, the ponderous lyrics. Here are a few samples:

Clumsily romantic: “When you’re not near me / I make the sound of one hand clapping / When you’re not near me / I leave no footprints in the sand.” Whomever he’s singing to, could you please get near Mr. Fogelberg right away?

Pseudomystical: “Like a wraith she ambles aimlessly / Through the mists along the shore / She wraps the foggy night around her like a warming shawl / And leaves wildflowers at my door.” Students have flunked out of high school creative writing classes for less.

Sappy nature worship: “Now the moon is in danger of running aground / As she sweeps the tattered clouds above the island / And the stars lay like diamonds on the breast of the sea.” Metaphor overload, metaphor overload.

Finally, the pseudoprofound: “Spiraling upward on a freshening lift / Reaching the realms of fleet Apollo / You have been given the most sacred of gifts / You must be fearless now and follow.”

That last extract is from a song called “Icarus Ascending,” which title alone should have forfeited any chance of this record’s seeing the commercial light of day.

It should be obvious after all these years that Mr. Fogelberg was a junior novelty within the mid-‘70s Southern California peaceful-easy-feeling movement.

He still may have that breezy country vibe on which the Eagles and Jackson Browne rode to fame — but those acts had at least a little edge to their sound. Mr. Fogelberg is softer than cotton, and about as tasty.

I will say this: After such a barrage of lite-rock inspirationalism, I did feel a whole lot better about myself. If only someone could bottle Dan Fogelberg’s music — then we wouldn’t have to listen to it.

Jack Johnson

On and On

The Moonshine Conspiracy Records

Jack Johnson’s recently released “On and On” is a testament to what has revived the singer-songwriter: a little funk ‘n’ groove.

British singer David Gray thickens his airy folk music with techno beats and drum looping, as on the hit song “Babylon.” John Mayer does the same thing, if a lot more subtly.

Mr. Johnson, a former pro surfer, takes a more organic approach — the way a reggae singer might play folk music. His is a mellower version of the rap-laden campground funk of G. Love & Special Sauce.

He’s a singer-songwriter for the slacker generation. “I’m just a waste of her energy, and she’s just wasting my time / So why don’t we get together,” Mr. Jackson suggests on, you guessed it, “Wasting Time.”

Beneath Mr. Johnson’s percussive, Bob Marley-style acoustic riffing, there’s the sparsely syncopated interplay between Merlo Podlewski’s bass and Adam Topol metronomically clacking on the rim of a snare drum and the occasional bongo.

“On and On” is a nearly uniform 45 minutes of laid-back summertime cheeriness.

Even when he’s spewing a neo-Luddite tirade, as on “The Horizon Has Been Defeated,” Mr. Johnson still sounds whimsically as if he doesn’t have a care in the world.

“No prints can come from fingers / if machines become our hands / And then our feet become the wheels / and then the wheels become the cars / And then the rigs begin to drill / until the drilling goes too far,” he sings.

If the world comes crashing down around this guy’s ears, he’ll still be sitting in a Barcalounger on the beach with an umbrella cocktail in hand.

The songs off “On and On” dreamily wash into each other like waves in an incoming ocean tide, which is both a good thing and a bad thing: good if you’re spellbound by the languid groove, bad if you’re looking for a little variety.

Some standouts: “Dreams Be Dreams,” a snoozy blend of Eric Burdon-era War and — gasp — California lite-rockers America; “Fall Line,” a more traditional-sounding folk tune; and “Rodeo Clown,” on which Mr. Jackson spits out, hip-hop style, a frenetic stream of rhymes:

“Teeny bopping disco queen, she barely understands her dreams of bellybutton rings and other kind of things / symbolic of change but that thing that is strange / is that the changes occurred, now she’s just part of the herd.”

It sounds hokey in print, but like Eminem, Mr. Johnson has a clever ability to sell that kind of verbiage without sounding like a poseur.

Mr. Johnson may not have progressed all that much from his “Brushfire Fairytales” debut last year, but judging from the sound of things, he’s not in any kind of hurry.

“On and On” is a joy to listen to, but beware: If you listen to this stuff on your way to work, you will be strongly tempted to play hooky and make for the beach.

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