Could there be a worse name for a guy in a band?" asks John Common of his surname. "Look up 'common' in the dictionary, and here's what it says: normal, plebian, standard...having no special distinction, coarse."
Ironically, none of those terms come close to describing Common. In fact, his latest effort, a brilliant, extremely ambitious disc titled Good to Be Born, is Denver's finest rock recording of the past decade. It's also the first release the former Rainville frontman has issued under his own name.
After busking his way across the country from his home in Pensacola, Florida, Common arrived in Denver in 1997, intent on chasing down a future that involved a hefty dose of music. Two years later, he formed Rainville and went on to release a pair of exceptional full-lengths that showcased his outstanding skills as a singer, songwriter and bandleader. The act disbanded in 2004, prompting Common to explore new territory. The result is Born, a stirring, mature and superbly self-produced album that blends the best parts of high-powered pop and guitar-driven rock with brainy studio touches and expert songcraft. While the new disc's decidedly untwanged sound may surprise fans of Rainville -- an act that had perfected a straightforward alt-country sound -- Common says the directional shift was spurred by his boredom with roots rock during the band's last year together.
John Common CD-release show
With Gregory Alan Isakov, Kettle Black and Joshua Novak, 8:30 p.m. Friday, August 11, Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, $7, 17+, 303-455-2124
"That stuff just started feeling really, really played out for me," Common confesses. "Those traditional forms just felt constricting, and even a little hokey at times. I started dreaming of a sound that was free to use any tool in the book to get an idea and an emotion across in a song."
Born fulfills that dream in fine fashion, with meticulously placed samples and sound bites. The disc opens with crickets chirping over a mechanized drone; that intriguing pairing leads into "What are You Waiting For," a loping, cinematic life question. "What are you waiting for?" Commons asks in his masculine, frayed-around-the-edges voice. "Who's gonna save you when you're on fire?" Like so much of the record, the song is dressed up in empty spaces of dramatic tension, raw-toned guitar figures and quirky hooks. "It's Out," meanwhile, is pure power-pop pleasure that crackles with chiming guitars and twinkling keyboard figures. The shimmering anthem ends with a repeating one-note tone. (A fading heart monitor? The last seconds of one's clock ticking away?) "Call Me Right Now" begins with a snippet of George Martin-esque tape manipulation that segues into jagged, Richard Lloyd-style guitars and road-worn lyrics sweetened by "ah-ah-ah" backing vocals and Common's own urgent singing.
Throughout Born, Common is backed by the punchy, consummate playing of his bandmates -- keyboardist Jed Marrs, bassist Kevin Meyer and drummer/co-producer Scott Davies (who recently yielded his slot to Tom Germain). Marrs's nimble sci-fi playing is the centerpiece of "Coming in for a Landing"; his childlike, Liquid Nails melody floats across descending chords that add suspense to the song's plane-coming-down images and the zigzagging array of sounds -- such as the medicated-voiced narrator who asserts that "in obtaining this record, you have taken the first step toward self-improvement." The speaker's assertion that neither this album nor any other "contains any magical powers" is the disc's biggest lie. Elsewhere, "Other Side of Town" starts out as a spare, late-night lament from some foggy back alley. But it soon leaps into a soaring, achingly beautiful chorus, with Common's voice stretched skyward across equally wrenching lyrics. The chorus caves into a collision of itching, braying guitars and a singer drowning in gin, yanked back through another cathartic chorus and a toy piano close. "In a Bookstore" is Elvis Costello-styled campy fun, a sunny ode for bookish types that highlights Common's mates, who come across like the Mile High equivalent of the Attractions. "My Heart Is a Wurlitzer" sports similar goofy charms and more jagged, anti-solo guitar work.
In "Anyway," a probing female voice asks, "At what age do you think you would say, ŒI'm glad I was born?'" before Common and crew grind through a rumbling, immensely catchy ode to a fleeting nightclub romance. The track's incessant, noisy instrumental break crumbles into a transcending blend of acoustic guitar and organ and a refrain of the song's opening question (now revealed to be a teacher querying a young student). The child's optimistic answer, smashed against the song's finale, is heartbreaking.
"I've been really addicted to non-musical audio, either finding it or recording it and then using it creatively like a collage in a song," explains Common, who's been seeking out such obscure sonic fragments for the past six years at estate sales and thrift stores. "When it works, the juxtaposition can be surreal, or incredibly sad, or really funny, or just inexplicably sublime. It all fits in my mind. And it's way more interesting than another damned guitar solo.
"I kind of think," he goes on, "that the guitar is completely over-used, over-relied-on and completely boring most of the time. I only play it because it's the only instrument I'm semi-competent on. I'm mostly focused on using guitar to help what needs to be done in the song at that moment."
Common's found-sound repository includes everything from educational and instructional offerings to a tape found on a late-'60s reel-to-reel machine. That recording documents several generations of a Native American family passing around a microphone as they sing songs, most of them in their native tongue. "It's my favorite album," he says, laughing, "and I have the only copy available on planet Earth.
"It seems so obvious now to me," he adds, "to use the entire palette of sounds available to us here on the planet to make music."
And if that music is on the upbeat side, even better. Common admits to having a bent for sad songs and dark material in the past, in part because he's been through his own share of "downer" times over the years. "After a while," he says, "you just get sick of it. You know: ŒHow about some light?' For those who listen to the songs, maybe I owe it to them and to myself to really try to be positive. There's plenty to be sad about, but you get what you focus on, so let's focus on light."
He's already lightened the load in a number of ways with his new disc.
"Early third-party trials," Common says, "are showing that a steady diet of Good to Be Born can improve or even completely cure ligament pain, Epstein-Barr virus, sensitivity to wool and the common cold."
Of course, he adds, there are even more practical time-tested applications for his music.
"I just want people to make sweet, sweet love with this record playing in the background," he offers. "Songs like ŒWhat Are You Waiting For' or ŒComing in for a Landing' take on a whole new meaning depending on the context, you know."
As does the disc's title. The term "good" here also implies readiness, Common notes, and reflects his feelings about his own musical rebirth. "This is the first record I've ever put out under my name," he notes, "and the title sort of signifies that I'm ready for that. I've never been in a better place than I am now as a writer and a musician and a guy in a band. Everything just feels right, and this album feels right. It's good to go; it's the right time."
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