Last year I was wowed by a record by Oranjuly, a Boston-based power pop “band” that was essentially the work of one man, Brian E. King, spiritual godson of Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, and Tom Scholz, who was visited by the ghosts of these and other not-yet-dead dudes in his laboratory-cum-recording-studio. From his bunker hidden deep in the bowels of Beantown, he emerged with one of my favorite albums of 2010, an American pop record with few peers, forged with great skill over the course of three years and fed by a complex imagination and a boundless reverence for classic sounds.
King has a thousand kindred spirits out there in the cities and hinterlands of our world, maybe even ten thousand, or a hundred thousand—each with a unique vision, a special synesthesia that enables them to see the world through melody, to hear the brightest colors and taste the simplest profound thoughts. They may toil in obscurity or touch the outer rim of public consciousness, or even—dare I say it—popularity (coo coo ca-choo, Karl Wallinger).
Among these is a gentleman named Morgan Taylor, songwriter, illustrator recording engineer, and onetime touring bassist for The Autumn Defense. When not making perfect pop records under his own name (or that of his former band Morgan Taylor’s Rock Group), he is the benevolent driving force behind the character Gustafer Yellowgold, a marvelously quirky alien being who spends his time making observations tuned to a soundtrack of beautiful pop songs. Gustafer is the subject of four animated children’s DVDs, including the recently released Gustafer Yellowgold’s Infinity Sock, the coolest, trippiest thing you’ll ever let your four year old watch.
A little background is in order. After the dissolution of Morgan Taylor’s Rock Group and an ambitious but little-heard solo record, Taylor began work on an idea he had for a picture book, starring a yellow alien explorer who leaves his home on the sun to settle into life in what Taylor calls “a slightly psychedelic version of the Minnesota woods.” Gustafer—an innocent with a slight mischievous streak—begat his own series of DVDs, visiting places like “Butter Pond Lake” and observing such phenomena as “Underwater Stars” and “Constellation Pies” (all from 2009’s Mellow Fever).
Taylor sounds a bit like Ben Folds fronting The Flaming Lips, and his songs are as tuneful and surreal as that description might indicate. On Infinity Sock, Taylor waxes childlike and poetic about hearing a band of bees (not the Band of Bees, but a make-believe cartoon combo, blissfully unaware of naming rights and cease-and-desist letters) in “Beehive,” discovering clothing made of cheese (“Wisconsin Poncho”), and, in “Slim Gets in ‘Em,” discovering “a beautiful reason for keeping all your socks on the ground” (so your pet eel has something to wear). The overarching theme is Gustafer’s search for the toe-end of the universe’s longest sock, which leads him to finding the secret lives of snakes (“Snake Proms”), the nature of curiosity (“Question Marks”), and various other interconnected bits of life on earth, leading up to the gorgeous denouement of “Sock of Ages.”
The animation throughout is simple but effective, affecting in the way it pulls the viewer in but never detracts from the music that propels the loose narrative. Parents might be reminded of Yellow Submarine or Sid and Marty Krofft , but those too young to recognize those references (i.e., the chief demographic for this entertainment) will find it no less absorbing. The visuals perfectly complement the simple sentiments and larger truths of the music.
And that’s the really compelling thing about Taylor’s music—the way he can get into the headspace of a child. It’s not easy; the innocent’s perspective is difficult for a non-innocent to conceive of, much less place in the context of sweet melodies and gorgeous harmonies. Taylor has that perspective down solidly, and he warms it with the summery sounds of a master pop craftsman. His creation is a wonderful multimedia experience for children and adults alike.
Many thanks to my friend Elizabeth Waldman Frazier for turning me on to Morgan Taylor and Gustafer Yellowgold. Next time up, I’ll be unable to say no to some cool Chicago rock, with power, melody, and nerve.