Review Summary: An excellent, intelligent pop/rock/jazz, with shades of Stelly Dan and The Sea and Cake.
Creating something that can be loosely called ‘intelligent music’, both musically and lyrically, while still making it listenable and acceptable is one of the toughest things around. Particularly if you want to put it in a ‘pop’ context. But then, even if it is absolutely brilliant, it is really hard to make it. Steely Dan did, Chicago’s The Sea an Cake not so much, another Chicago product, Aluminium Group even less, and unfortunately, very few heard of Richard Lewis, the British painter/composer/musician living and working in Paris.
As evidenced by Head Above Tide, his third album, New Yorker Jason Vitelli, is yet another composer/musician trying to go the same path. This graduate of Binghamton University for Music Composition and student of film scoring at NYU obviously has high personal standards, not only when it concerns the music he makes and the lyrics he writes, but also about the audio quality of the music he will present to his listeners. All evident on this album, but is it something that is just plain ‘intellectualism’, or is it something that is worth a listen? After spinning this one quite a few times, I certainly will opt for the second idea. Hopefully, he’ll be more noticed third time around.
In many ways, on Head Above Tide Vitelli travels the similar path as all of the above mentioned names - carefully constructed complex, but at the same time very listenable musical structures, based on pop, jazz and classical music, intricate arrangements and thoughtful lyrics based on obvious knowledge of everything around the person who wrote them - from personal matters (“Labyrinthine”, where the author places himself in the role of the protagonist in Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice”) to social commentaries dealing with child refugees in the Sudanese civil war (“Thee Marionettes”).
Where Vitelli really succeeds is that at no point does he either musically or lyrically cross into pretentiousness, walking that thin line where you enjoy what you are listening to and thinking about what he’s trying to say at the same time. Such a concept demands that your musical ideas are presented almost impeccably. Vitelli is up to that task, handling a large array of the instrumentation himself, including arrangements, but also supported by an excellent cast of musicians. What is more, he obviously has high production values too, something such music demands. Out of the 16 tracks here, there’s not even one that drops below such high standard.
What Jason Vitelli has done on Head Above Tide is come up with exactly what he seems to has set out to do - come up with an extremely listenable, smart, ‘intellectual pop’ album. Hopefully, it will get him more noticed.