June 2011 - This Was Tomorrow

Fred Nolan - The Muse In Music

It’s really quite alarming to hear Harry Chapin rap, sing about CGI, or chide us for our style over content. Almost as much as it is to hear Beck sing libidinous verses like “embrace me with your legs … we met in the ocean where she was born.”

By all means neither Chapin nor Beck are responsible for this magnificent bedlam, and we hasten to write that Atom Orr owes little to either. Yet the fabric here is drenched with the baritone nostalgia of Chapin and his contemporaries, and the architecture bows underneath the same sense of insider chic that lends gravity to Beck’s finest work. This is throwback, without lapsing into retro. Yet it is also prescience, without verging into precious. Maybe Christopher Hoffee detected this anachronistic tension when he named the album This Was Tomorrow. Understand that by the first quarter pole you’ll have no idea what year it is. But there’s an app for that.

Even a glance down the tracklist tells us that we’re in for a postmodern jaunt: Picasso arrives early, and in time Snow White shows up, and before too long you visit a Green Lollipop Forest. But it’s Just a Dream. On a Tilt-A-Whirl. And the title track could use a paragraph or two for name alone. Indeed, it already did. Will. Did.

The moving and quirky blog entry that recounts the genesis and construction of the album cites “Hey Now” as the first song Hoffee wrote for Tomorrow. (Today it closes the album, and it’s one of the finest tracks.) Hesitant, almost lowercase pick-strum pick-strum accompanies the first verse, building in volume and arsenal until the brassy finish — but the real news here are Hoffee’s vocals. His voice boasts a favorite uncle quality, warm and deep and tapwater clear: the idea of summer water. Go bathe in it now. We’ll be here when you get back. Promise.

More firsts: “Just a Dream” was the first tune Hoffee ever composed as a singer-songwriter. He refurbished it during the production of This Was Tomorrow … twenty years later. (We told you you wouldn’t know what year it is.) He describes early versions as “kinda country sounding in waltz time,” but the current incarnation is a house-party guitar march, high-register slide preening, and a vocal line that’s contagious to the point of invasive. The B-section is decisive, defining, a shoutalong triumph. Damn, but this guy is good.

“Running Fast” is the second track, our likely favorite. Hoffee’s description of the song’s inspiration and execution is too long to include without parsing, and far too good to mince, so head off to the link and read it in full. We’ve used the term throwback once already, but this is more like launchback, anyway. Uptempo and groovy, lost somewhere between Nick Drake’s moody storytelling and the clean-cut psychedelic unirony of the preceding decade. It is a warm quilt, this song, and this short, unexpected album, with its matte vocals, alternate guitar tunings, brief moments of darkness, and inquiries into love, dreaming, living.

Complaints? Few, and not all of them have fangs, either. Like the part about how this 28-minute tender is too short by half. Some of the songs are likewise too short, and the spaces we fill with our raised voices, too fleeting. Some listeners might find the pioneering sketches a bit kitschy or out of place (“Walking Snow White,” and “Green Lollipop Forest”), or the hushed passages a bit too fairytale (“Tilt-A-Whirl,” and the apparently quite versatile “Green Lollipop Forest”). Others will see This Was Tomorrow for what it really is: a seamless whole, a travelogue set to sound. A slow-cook feast shot through a wide-angle lens. It is an album about love, and you will.