So yeah, this will undoubtedly be one of our shorter guides — but trust me when I tell you it’ll be stuffed to the rafters with great songs, the kind of songs that will send you rushing breathlessly to your favorite online retailer in search of your very own copies of these fine albums. (Judging from what the Amazon links below are telling me, you can get the whole David Mead catalog for something like 75 cents used, which would send me into fits of rage if I weren’t so sleep-deprived.)
On with the show!
Not that I’ve given this any real thought, but if I were to compile my personal list of Best Debut Albums by Any Artist Ever, David Mead’s The Luxury of Time would have to rank, if not near the top, then at least comfortably toward the upper middle. (What? That’s still totally a compliment — there have been a lot of debut albums.) Legend has it that Mead, fresh from his stint with minor Nashville legends Joe, Marc’s Brother, strolled into the offices of RCA Records (with his manager, natch — don’t go trying this at home), pulled out his acoustic guitar, and crooned himself a deal right there and then. The RCA brass were that impressed with his talent.
And then RCA proceeded to do what they’ve done with pretty much every single one of their artists besides Elvis, which is: fuck everything up.
We’ve covered a lot of flops in our time, and it rarely makes sense to pin the blame for an album’s commercial failure solely on the label — there are always dozens of other forces at play, and really, when you get right down to it, most art simply isn’t meant for mass appeal. But we’ll make a special exception here, because it took planet-sized portions of incompetence to keep “Robert Bradley’s Postcard” (download) from finding instant purchase on playlists, car stereos, and other assorted music delivery systems across America. Honestly, I’ve always tried to avoid full-bore evangelism here, but “Robert Bradley’s Postcard” is a perfect pop song.
And The Luxury of Time is something like a perfect pop album. Peter Collins’s Technicolor production provides a perfect background for Mead’s elastic, bell-clear vocals as they swoop and soar through 13 tracks that are … well, they’re more or less flawless. The album presents a fairly even mix of uptempo cuts and ballads, but since we’ll have more than our fill of the slow stuff later, here’s “Touch of Mascara” (download). Now go buy your own copy.
Two years after The Luxury of Time trickled down into used CD shops around the country, Mead returned with Mine and Yours, an album as quietly contemplative as its predecessor was brash and outgoing. There isn’t a “Robert Bradley’s Postcard” anywhere on the record, which is why it took me several months to get into it, and probably part of what sent the album sailing over the heads of program directors.
Not that they’d bothered getting on board the first time around, but RCA (understandably) played up the fact that Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger produced Mine and Yours, so a not-inconsiderable number of the folks who bothered to listen probably went in expecting to find sharp hooks, driving tempos, and Mead’s tongue in his cheek. There’s a little of all that stuff here, but for the most part, this album is … well, it’s dreamy is what it is, and even though I know that’s a horrible adjective for a collection of music not involving Davy Jones, I can’t think of anything better. Mead’s vocals float in haunting webs of sound, and though the songs don’t hit you with the immediate force of Luxury‘s brighter moments, they might actually have more staying power.
Spend enough time with Mine and Yours and you’ll fall in love with it. I can hear you saying “Yeah, dumbass, that’s probably true of any album,” and it probably is — but this one is more deserving of your love than most. Start off with “Flamin’ Angel” (download) and my sentimental favorite, “Standing Here in Front of Me” (download).
After the unholy marriage of Sony and BMG, Mead found himself cost-analyzed out of a deal — which would have been enough of a bummer for his fans even if they hadn’t known he was in the midst of recording his third album, with producer Stephen Hague. Fortunately, Mead soon hooked up with Nettwerk; unfortunately, the Hague sessions remained vaulted. For his third release, Mead started over, hiring cellist David Henry to man the boards for what would become Indiana.
Cellists aren’t known for making uptempo pop records, and Indiana is not an exception to this rule. Mead was in a pensive mood — he moved from New York back to Nashville, got married, and generally tried to figure out where he stood in the ever-consolidating music industry landscape. As a result, Indiana is Mead’s most reflective album — don’t come here looking for stuff that’s going to pump you up. He’ll occasionally make you laugh, as he does on the perfect portrait of domestic bliss that is “Ordinary Life” (download), but mostly he just sort of quietly breaks your heart, as on the sweetly melancholic “You Might See Him” (download).
This isn’t my favorite David Mead record — I know how well he can mix it up, and I wish he’d done it a little more here — but there’s no mistaking his evolution as a songwriter and performer. Well, not unless you worked for Nettwerk in ’04, anyway. The label cut him loose after one album, and he was on the market again.
While figuring out his next move, Mead reached out to his fans via the wonderfully comprehensive fan site Mine and Yours, sharing periodic updates (and the occasional MP3 goodie, like “Claws” [download] and “Jonathan Barnum, Talk of the Town” [download]).
The Hague sessions finally saw the light of day — sort of — with the release of the Wherever You Are EP in 2005, a stopgap between Indiana and Mead’s next full-length album. Personally, I’ve always believed that having an entire album’s worth of material languish in some label’s vaults through no fault of the artist’s own would be enough to make me nuts, and that I wouldn’t be able to record anything else until I got those tracks into the public’s ears — but I’m clearly in the minority, because in most cases, artists seem to dust themselves off pretty quickly after a label divorce winds up keeping a would-be album on the shelf.
Mead seemed to be more or less beyond these recordings by the time they were released — in the press kit, he likens hearing them again to finding undeveloped film in a kitchen drawer — but their charms weren’t lost on him, even if he did feel the need to prune them down to EP length. (As he put it at the time, “Like most long farewells, the full-length version contained some moments that now seem slightly embarrassing and better left unsaid.”)
Maybe he knew what he was doing, because Wherever You Are is a terrific little record — not too short to get its point across, and not too long to overstay its welcome. It’s tempting to wonder which directions Mead’s career might have taken if the album had been released in its original form, but he doesn’t seem to regret its ultimate fate, so I suppose we shouldn’t either. Dig on the title track (download) and see if you don’t feel the urge to drop some coins in his tip jar.
Now that he’d passed through the tracts of RCA, Nettwerk, and Eleven Thirty, Mead decided just to hang up his own shingle for his next album, establishing Tallulah Media as the conduit for Tangerine. (He might never be a household name, but at least now he’d never be dropped by his label.) With Brad Jones in the producer’s chair, Mead assembled a dozen pop songs every bit as bright and tangy as the title would have you believe.
Having said that, Tangerine isn’t really a sequel to the sparkly The Luxury of Time — Mead’s older, and the music is both deeper and more expansive. I’m not entirely convinced there’s really any such thing as “baroque pop,” but if there is, these songs fit the bill — Jones doesn’t produce the record so much as he conducts a carnival sideshow in three- to four-minute increments.
And having said that, it’s worth mentioning that Tangerine is rarely, if ever, guilty of being busy. There’s a lot going on in the background, but the arrangements feel deliberate, not showy — and anyway, for fans who had remained on board for Mead’s slow midtempo drift during Mine and Yours and Indiana, it was something of a relief to know he still had it in him. (Besides, you can never have too many records that feature a calliope and/or glockenspiel in your collection, can you?)
It appears not to have sold worth a damn, which could be why Mead’s MySpace page hasn’t been updated in eons, and why his official site is covered in dust; he probably draws a steadier paycheck reviewing new releases for Paste magazine than he does for anything related to his own songs. This is, as I said before, total bullshit; listen to “Hard to Remember” (download) and “Fighting for Your Life” (download) and tell me we couldn’t use more David Mead on our airwaves.
See? I thought so.
Anyway, that’s where the story ends for now, with the exception of some stray live tracks (try “Elodie” [download] and “Only in the Movies” [download], from Live at Schubas, available at eMusic) and non-album cuts (like Mead’s lovely-as-you’d-expect cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” [download]). If your acquaintance with David Mead is starting here, I envy you — you’ve got months of getting to know dozens of excellent pop songs ahead of you. For me, the next new album can’t get here fast enough.