album review – Thom Kunz’s “Paper Brain”
By Brian Tucker
The concept album still seems novel, even though it dates back to the 1940’s with Woodie Guthrie or The Beach Boys in the 1960s. The Who released several, Tommy and Quadrophrenia, and Pink Floyd made perhaps the most generational with 1979’s The Wall. Alice Cooper made one that’s lesser known (and brilliant), 1978’s From the Inside.
With lyrics written by Bernie Taupin (a frequent Elton John collaborator) its story of a rock star too far gone ends up in a sanitarium bin to dry out. Its songs half personal and half observation, the album somehow hasn’t become a movie or Broadway show. Ten years ago Green Day took concept albums to mainstream heights (and Broadway) with American Idiot and Charlotte, N.C. trio Hectorina released a debut two years ago that was a lengthy concept album/rock opera called Collywobble.
In short, the lasting effect of great concept albums has influenced new acts and those underground to push limits of creativity, telling long-from stories through song. Locally, there have been several. This year saw Dead Man’s Song from Ekiim Ariara (solo project from Temple5 and Justin Lacy & the Swimming Machine guitar player Michael Buckley) about mental health issues and Poorly Knit’s Getting Help, whose intensely personal storytelling concerned the collapse of a serious relationship. Last year Museum Mouth released Alex I am Nothing, a concept album about obsessing over a relationship that would never come to be.
In September Thom Kunz released a diverse sounding concept album created by a cast of players described in liner notes as a “collective community project homegrown in Wilmington.” The brainchild of Kunz, it’s colorful, large sounding, and explores human vulnerability and its dark complexities. Awash in styles and sounds, it has various singers dubbed The Paper Choir – Sam Carradori, Jennifer Reid, Addie Wuensch, Joan Childress Wilkerson, and Whitney Pearsall. It features musicians Mike Ruew, Mike Phillips and author and UNCW Creative Writing Professor Clyde Edgerton playing banjo on “Far Away.”
Together the group has created songs ranging from ballads to caustic synth numbers like “Criminal” or the thunderous “Cuts like a Song.” “Paper Brain” is atypical, not just with varied singers but with structure and ambiance. Well-rounded musically, from scorching industrial synth under Wuensch’s vocals on “Criminal” to Whitney Pearsall’s aching honesty on “Far Away,” this is an album grabbing you from the onset and forty five minutes later releasing its grip. Engaging yes, but the lyrics and melodies linger long after.
Paper Brain is less a theatrical album than a thematic one. Pearsall sings dire lyrics on “Far Way” – “This is the last time, I swear it’s the last time, you won’t hurt me anymore, my face against the floor,” the last bit sung weakly. Or “Hell is a place dressed in a smile” that opens the eight minute “Hell is a Place.” Or “Reduced to fear the ones I love the most” Carradori sings on “Wires.” And desire – such as the haunting refrain of “I wanna be myself again” on “Box of Bells.”
This is painful material, but as a whole makes for massive music, be it rock, electronic, intimate, spacey, or folky. Familiar and new, Paper Brain does much with eight songs. I was reminded of lots of things, sounds and voices across years of music genres and soundtrack albums. Yes, it brings to mind Pink Floyd and the ups and down’s of that Alice Cooper album, but it’s a mini epic/distant cousin to both and completely its own creation.
The Paper Choir allows for different personalities, facets that help shape an album sonically diverse, atmospheric, and engrossing, partially painting a picture for the listener. The variety, along with different moods, allows the listener to paint more for on their own. Jennifer Reid, on “Messenger” is in stark contrast to Whitney Pearsall on “Far Away” and the result is fantastic. Where Reid is elegant, Pearsall is aching beautiful, and further, on “Criminal” Addie Wuensch is a chameleon, grinding and begging in her vocals.
There’s a side one/side two mentality to Paper Brain, clearly noticeable when flipping the vinyl version and playing it beginning to end. The energy is frantic, seesawing, and the feeling of downward spiral at work. The frenzied personality of songs is a plus, helping create the feeling of ups and downs and the anguish of personal ordeals. The speeding, out of control personality of “Tested” recalls the violent synth, sans shock factor, of Marilyn Manson (Mechanical Animals era) without ever being Marilyn Manson. Joan Childress Wilkerson’s vocals are wild and deliberate on the track whose guitar solo is a massive slow burn.
Then there’s “Wires,” a sultry number driven by heartbeat percussion and soft vocals interlaced with coarse, altered ones. Sam Carradori’s vocals are strong and mysterious here, Fans of Shara Nelson (Massive Attack) or Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance) on 1999’s The Insider soundtrack (namely “Meltdown”) will dig this song and its combined soulful vocals and synth.
Paper Brain is a work of unconfined expression – a layered album to be experienced, not just heard. Conversely, each of the eight songs can be enjoyed stand-alone, but best heard as a whole (the album unfurls as a continuous 45 minute experience). Opening with the tribal, heart pounding “Cuts like a Song” it closes with the patient hunting of “Hell is a Place” which features the entire album’s singers, called The Paper Choir. This choice, this stacking of songs, feels natural, and “Hell is a Place” feels like destruction, finality, and truce all at once.
Paper Brain is a unique album, a great album, and one of the best ways to spend ten bucks in Wilmington on art.