CD Review: Mark Abel’s “The Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits”

Mark Abel

The Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits (Delos Records)

 By Brian Arsenault

When you live in Maine as I do, the whole North American continent away, California is a dream, a myth.  Endless summers, movie stars, L.A. freeways, L.A. Woman.  Haight-Ashbury and noir novels from Raymond Chandler to Robert Crais.  It’s there somewhere over the horizon with a sea on the left instead of the right. Sunsets over water not sunrises.

So I approached Mark Abel’s The Dream Gallery with a real sense of anticipation.  What can I learn about this mythical place that so many bright, creative people call home?

What I got were cardboard cutout characters framed by awkward lyrics crammed into uncomfortable musical boxes.  I mean I am glad I didn’t read Abel’s self descriptive phrases “postmodern art song” and “alternative classic” (Really?) before I listened, or I would have really loathed this album.

Herein we have a shallow housewife from San Diego and a smug one in Berkeley. I could get as much depth from watching “Housewives of Orange County.”  We have a punk kid who hates his elders for bankrupting Social Security and a town “named for a hefty ex-president.”  Hint, Taft is dead.

The singers are capable enough, but they struggle with lyrics that seem failed attempts at Broadway stylings. Or are they “postmodern” poetics? Often, the pompous, ponderous “classical” orchestra seems in almost comic juxtaposition — as with an LA rich bitch bemoaning her husband’s affair with a much younger woman “so lithe and smart, a walking tribute to the plastic surgeon’s art.”  We have moved on to “Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

Maybe Abel needed an Elton John to his Bernie Taupin, although Taupin never wrote lyrics so awkward and obvious.  If he did Elton threw them away. Or maybe Abel could have just published his lyrics as prose/poetry.  Some could even have even appeared in The New Yorker for highbrow Easterners to “look down on everyone.”

As noted, there are some more than capable singers here.  Carver Cossey is a basso profundo whose song — “Lonnie ” —  comes closest to being touching. And Tom Zohar is just the right mix of resentful and youthful for “Adam.” The women are all good.  Mezzo soprano Delaney Gibson promises so much more in “Carol,” with her opening line “My husband is a killer” than the rest of the see-how-trite-I-am song manages.  And so it goes.

Talent overcome with cumbersome arrangements, pretentious “alternative classic” orchestration and lyrics that just don’t illuminate California and Californians or move the listener. Honestly, you’ll understand at least Southern California better listening to late Beach Boys.  Maybe even early Beach Boys.

Hey, maybe a second review from a Californian would be fair.  He or she might like it better. Or dislike it more.

To read more reviews and posts by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

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