June 10, 2003

Faris Nourallah "Problematico"

Wow! You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, you really shouldn't. On first inspection, the handwritten/hand drawn artwork, complete with songs titles like "Sometimes I Dream I'm A Country," "Will We Ever Know Why?" and "Sick On The Escalator" led me to think that Problematico was going to be another sad home-taper's attempt to repeat the best--and worst--moments of Half Japanese's back-catalog. It would be very easy for you to think that Faris Nourallah is another addition to the lo-fi folkie pile. I know I did.

Boy, was I wrong!

Looks can be deceiving, and Problematico is a deceptive record indeed. Underneath the simple artwork and lo-fi feel of the packaging is a stunningly warm, impressive record--his second this year, too. In fact, it's one of the unintentionally retro albums I've ever heard. I say it's unintentional, because I really, truly believe that Nourallah is not trying to co-opt anyone's style, I think he just naturally has this ability to write a warm, glossy, feel-good pop song. Sure, "You've Got It Made" steals the best parts of the Mamas and Papas' classic "California Dreamin'" and The Zombies' "Tell Her No," but it's not done for irony's sake. Heck, I never even realized that the two riffs were almost the same!

Really, though, what makes Problematico is the fact that Nourallah has an understanding and mastery of the basic pop structure. There's nothing odd or weird or campy or novel about his songwriting; it's strictly by-the-book pop, similar in nature to (but never imitating) bands such as the Turtles, Association, Zombies and any number of other bands you'll hear on oldies radio, yet it all sounds fresh and new and it doesn't sound cute or retro or anything like that. Placing his songs in a soft, comfortable shell of bass/guitar/drums/piano, he has successfully reverted to ancient (in popular culture years) tradition, and these songs--from the lovely "Coming Out" and the rocking "Fantastic!" to the sensitive "More to Life" and "Impossible to Know"--simply shine and sparkle in a way that more produced songs don't, yet none of them ever sound less than polished. It's a part of the contradiction, but it's true--they make complicated music sound so simple, and their simple songs are actually complex little compositions.

Problematico is a wonderful pop record. Nourallah's voice is soft, soothing and nice; though his range is somewhat limited, that doesn't mean his songs are. He uses his abilites to the hilt, and he pulls off an album's worth of wonderful, subtle pop songs. What could make Problematico better? An orchestra. Really. If these songs were done up Jimmy Webb style, his songs would be more than strong--they'd be overwhelmingly powerful. It really goes without saying that I am KEEPING AN EYE on Faris Nourallah.

--Joseph Kyle

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