Joseph ArthurBefore I saw him live, all I had heard about Joseph Arthur was that he was a very original singer/songwriter/guitarist. That, and he came highly recommended from someone whose opinion I trust when it comes to these things. As it turned out, Joseph Arthur's performance at San Francisco’s Café du Nord last October was one of the more engaging shows I’d seen in the past several months. Checking out a lot of music can make you a bit numb, and often it gets difficult to become truly inspired. But Arthur’s show (which included both a solo turn and a second set backed by NYC-based Johnny Society) felt like a full-on assault, with searing guitars and crazy layered effects that had my head still reeling even as I climbed the stairs out of the club and into the cool SF night.

Though new to me, Joseph Arthur has a dedicated following, judging by the crowded room of rapt listeners at Café du Nord. He’s known for his dark lyrics, which would partly explain why people were so attentive. He’s also respected and touted by many critics in both the US and Europe. I overheard one woman remark that his live performances are very different from his studio albums, so I was anxious to see how they compared when I sat down to listen to Redemption’s Son, his third and latest album, which is being released this month.

Redemption’s SonRedemption’s Son certainly shows a more mellow side to Joseph Arthur, compared to his live gig. It took me a while to match songs on the album with those we heard at the show, recognizable mainly by their pointed yet understated choruses (i.e., "Can’t find my way without following you," "I’ve been so happy being unhappy with you"). Some of the finest tracks on the album — such as "Innocent World," "September Baby," "Termite Song" and "You've Been Loved" — are lovely slow songs with instrumentation as haunting as the lyrics. The CD overall is very gentle, although it does move back and forth between soft songs, pop tunes and more hard-hitting numbers through the course of its 75 minute, 16 track duration. The 10 minute "Termite Song" in and of itself feels like several songs in one, as it vacillates from melancholy instrumental to reflective narrative (in Arthur’s recognizable voice: worn yet somehow smooth along the edges) and back to weepy instrumental, this time with added psychedelic effects. Yet it sustains itself beautifully through these various progressions.

Numerous influences can be heard throughout Redemption’s Son. The harmonica in "Dear Lord" calls Dylan to mind, although the beautiful, gospel-like harmonies are much tighter than you’d find in most Dylan songs. Arthur’s falsetto and vocal stylings in the poignant "Innocent World" are strongly reminiscent of Neil Young. "September Baby" has a Beck Odelay feel to it, which I find appealing, though of course in all fairness you can trace those roots much farther back than Beck. All in all, Joseph Arthur covers many points of the spectrum on this album, and he does it well. The more rocking numbers are very contagious, especially the driving "Nation Of Slaves," which feels most like the energy of Joseph Arthur’s live show, and "Permission," with its tweaky guitar and vocal effects.

Even the songs that veer closest to pop — such as "I Would Rather Hide," "Evidence," "Permission" and "In The Night" — still bear a stamp of originality that distinguishes them from the bland, unthreatening fare featured on Top 40 radio stations. After all, Arthur layers a catchy melody with words like "I wanna die on a TV show/and be reborn as something that’s real." Though I could see these four songs in particular being played alongside pop radio songs, I wouldn’t turn the dial: it would be enough to hold my interest and make me think that there might be some hope yet among the mainly indistinguishable crap in that realm.

Joseph ArthurRedemption’s Son is a well-produced album, engineered by Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits, Cibo Matto, Pearl Jam). Yet for all its smooth production and pop sensibilities it still evokes genuine emotion, thanks to Arthur’s talent as a lyricist and musician. He plays nearly all of the instruments (and produces most of the effects) heard on the album, with a bit of help from multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone. There are several guest drummers and percussionists, including Cyro Baptista of the Trey Anastasio Band, as well as a cellist who lends her skills beautifully on several tracks.

Lovely as this album is, suffice to say that Joseph Arthur is not for everyone. In his own words, he’s interested in "things that aren’t safe," so those who like their music wholesome and innocuous are advised to steer clear. However, those who love a strong singer/songwriter with solid guitar skills will dig Redemption’s Son. As for those who think that they’ve heard it all, and who think there’s not much originality or genuine creativity out there, you might just find something redeeming in Joseph Arthur’s music.

Redemption’s Son
1. Redemption's Son
2. Honey And The Moon
3. Dear Lord
4. I Would Rather Hide
5. Innocent World
6. September Baby
7. Nation Of Slaves
8. Evidence
9. Let's Embrace
10. Termite Song
11. Permission
12. Favorite Girl
13. You Are The Dark
14. In The Night
15. Blue Lips
16. You've Been Loved

Joseph Arthur - guitar, bass, piano, drums, programming, sound effects, vocals, Moog synthesizer, fretless bass, hammer dulcimer, sculpture
Cyro Baptista - percussion
Nadia Lanman - cello
Rene Lopez - percussion
Ged Lynch - drums
Ben Perowsky - drums
Pat Sansone - bass, guitar, electric piano, background vocals, mellotron

Margaret Pitcher
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 11/25/02]

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