Monday, November 29, 2004

Mike Wran
Parallel Sky
Pink Society Records, Balt MD, 1986

It's a sad fact and a cliche that most musical efforts are born in great enthusiasm and generally end in tragic whimpers, corpses along the vinyl and tape strewn road. One moment you're surfing on top of a mosh pit and the next day you're Pauly Shore. Generally, most bands and musicians deserve this fate (and I speak from experience). The same could be said about alot of music that gets popular - just check out the Bubblegum Machine sometime or MTV when they actually play music (between 5 and 7 AM). But there are those few corpses along the littered highway that deserve resuscitation and I'm here to bring some long awaited CPR to the career of one
Mike Wran.

Poor Mike - here was a debut album coming out of a place and time - a Baltimore underground that worshipped loud guitars and bands you could go out and see. He was an odd duck without a band (all music written and performed in the studio) and, predictably, Mike had trouble getting attention. It fell to the greatest punk rock DJ of the era - Rod Misey of the late lamented Baltimore local music show (WCVT) to push Wran in front of our faces - playing cuts from this record incessantly for a few weeks in late '86 even though it was hardly "punk" as it was currently defined. I even seem to remember Misey had Wran come into the studio for an interview even. In any case, he got MY attention and I went out and bought this sucker and played it more than several times.

Background: Wran originally started to make an album with his good friend
Mark Harp that sounded like it was going to be an interesting take on Talking Headsstyle new wave. Abruptly, he quit that project, (Harp says they had a falling out) to concentrate on this solo effort - renting a studio with a synthesizer (and an early sampler), several guitars and a drum machine. I have to guess there was more than just a disagreement between friends as Parallel Sky is a completely different direction than where he and Harp were gonna go.

Yes, the results are a stunning debut album that shamelessly steals the best from the previous decade's classic rock and pop as well as the then-popular British dance pop and psychedelia AND GETS AWAY WITH IT. This is headphone music, not dance music - hard to describe since it is so broad in its influences - perhaps
Pink Floyd meets New Order or a Soft Cell gets together with Prince (in his rare "rocker" mode). I'm also hearing a slight bow towards prog-rock, but its only wee - no 8/5 measures and obtuse drum solos --- that said, you do sense deliberate composition (a bit more like King Crimson than say Crack the Sky?) that someone sweated hours over. At any rate, there's absolutely no punk influence here at all - except the fact that this was a pure DIY (to the nth degree) production.

The record is not without its flaws. Flaw 1: Wran's voice is not the strongest in the world (to his credit, there's very little studio enhancement outside of reverb). Flaw two: there is a very fine line between synthesizer and "casioization" -- not to say the "casio sound" doesn't work in some pieces but in Wran's grand compositions its like a finger nail on the chalk board when it peeks out from beneath the mix (I know, that's a horribly mixed metaphor). At any rate, I didn't include those pieces that tottered on the edge. To his credit, though, the drum programming never annoys. Flaw number 3 (not really a flaw but an observation): Wran is an excellent musician but his guitar playing is at times halting and he flubs a keyboard line here and there. He's about two or three years from going from a great musician to a master.

Alas, this was not to be... or least if it was, there was no follow-up. We hear Mike didn't do too well in the ensuing years. We won't go into details but as far as I know, no recording companies were banging on his bedroom windows, no Swengali arrived to guide him through a career, no band formed to take these songs on the road.
Mark Harp graciously sent me the photo above which is circa 1990- this was about the time when things started spiraling out of control for Wran. He's still around, though -- Harp says he talked with him about another music project several years ago but it came to naught.

Here are the best cuts on the album (as always, they will be up for a limited time and meant to further discussion and interest into Wran and similar music):

"Chasing Down Storms" - This is the opening cut and it grabs your attention with its sparing use of guitar to lay in the hook to the chorus - the quiet opening is somewhat marred by the perfidy of vinyl (and the fact that I don't own a $1200 turntable). In a more inneresting world, this cut would have accompanied the much rumored broom closet sex scene between Ringwald and Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club (I kidding).

"There She Goes" - This is the closing cut on the record and my favorite. I've included the little vignette that opens it -- every cut in the album except the first one has one of these pieces - this one recalls some of the
Beatles "No. 9" experiments. According to Mark Harp, Wran got to experiment with an early sampler and to his credit, he used sparingly and didn't turn it into a science club experiment (there are others in the period who showed little restraint with their samplers when they should have, eh, Mr. P. Rogers Nelson???). This is really a great little '80s psychedelic synth pop piece. Stick this in your iPod, go out for a walk and I dare you not to start singing the chorus "theeeerrreee sheeee gooooes - wandering, wandering"... there's also a really fine hallucinatory interlude about 2:10 into the cut that's not to be missed.

"Parallel Sky" - Wran shows off his guitar prowess here in what sounds like a duet between a "Doves Cry"
Prince and a "Dark Side-era" David Gilmour that swirls about Joe Jacksonian piano chord progression. I like his singing here most - but its the smashing (as in smashing guitars) ending that sells this song.

  • Thanks to Mark Harp for providing some background on Wran and the photo. His monster-sized archive is a treat to peruse - lots of Baltimore weirdness and cool sounds in the tradition of the city's favorite son, Frank Zappa. You can hear some Wran songs from the doomed album that he and Harp were going to put together. "Just So Far" is worth a spin, even with its demo quality.


Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention Tears for Fears and Kate Bush... I mean, I hear alot of that here. The fact that there are so many influences here further suggests that Wran is an original... but what do you all think?

Jim H said...

Oops - that last comment was supposed to be by me not anonymous (and no, I don't post comments on my blog anonymously although I have a few such commenters)