Michael Been's music is personal...intensely personal with an exploratory edge. It's intelligent without being pretentious or coldly cerebral; emotional, but artistic with spiritual overtones. His former band The Call created music that was driving and rhythmically oriented; subject-wise, their songs were full of gripping and gritty images of conflict, compelling portraits of cataclysm and deliverance, making their music genuinely provocative.
Now, unfortunately for the group of discriminating fans that held The Call's music in high regard, the band as a band no longer exists. With eight albums to their credit-such as their unacknowledged masterpiece Modern Romans (a hard-hitting raw musical essay of singular power concerning the spirit-numbing violence of contemporary culture), Reconciled (an album chock-full of potential radio songs left inexplicably unreleased as singles by their record company), the hauntingly introspective Into the Woods, and the sparkling Let the Day Begin showcasing a variety of musical moods-The Call as a band will be sorely missed.
Fortunately for The Call's fans, lead singer and songwriter Michael Been is continuing his music career as a solo artist. Two members from his former band-drummer Scott Musick and guitarist Tom Ferrier-are continuing their musical association. Both are featured on Been's new solo release On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthroughand played on the accompanying tour.
With the addition of guitarist Ralph Patlan, On the Verge takes on a predominantly heavy guitar sound. Except for the undifferentiated grunge of "In My Head" (which doesn't really seem to put the song across in an interesting way musically), the new guitar lineup seems to pay off with a lot of new vitality.
The opener chugger "Us" sets the mood for a series of hammering rockers with its keening guitar volley and tense rhythmic guitar intercutting. The musicians really let loose with an all-out barrage on "When You're With Me." Its exuberance is matched by the roiling guitars and telling and moving vulnerability of "Nearly Fell": "Deep are the wounds that shaped me/I was vain/Struck by the hand that shaped me."
The catchy boogie behind "This World" is a rumbling mix of resonant spasmodic bass runs and high-pitched nervous guitar feedback. It's definitely the most distinctive hard rocking cut, with great lyrics to boot: "I look high through the trees/To the depths of the seas/Will I find me a place in this world?" Just to add a little vintage variety, On the Verge includes a kicking cover version of the Yardbirds' "For Your Love."
AFTER THE RELEASE of The Call's last album in 1990, Been wrote and performed the soundtrack to filmmaker Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper (1992). His music wells up throughout the film, the backbone to a night tableau of florid city images that serve as the backdrop to the story of another one of Schrader's troubled cinematic pilgrims. The soundtrack, only available as an EP in Britain, is full of fiery mid-tempo songs.
The new solo effort features a significant mix of the same type of slowed-down ru-minations in mid-tempo that are-with few exceptions-very effective. One of the songs, "To Feel This Way" (in two different versions), was actually slated for the Light Sleeper soundtrack, but found its way onto On the Verge . Been's husky vocal theatricality comes off with almost stunning effect on a couple of slower moody atmospheric gems-"This Way" and "Lumi-nous"-when he sings about the specter of a past relationship rearing its head, and the sense of losing and finding himself in the clarity of a transcendent light.
With his voice filtered and some electronic flourishes, "Now I Know High (Part 2)" is another hypnotic mid-tempo song that is extended out almost eight minutes with some spacey dreamtime guitar play. The languid theme of falling asleep and dreaming in the arms of grace is some of his best new work.
With the anthemic rockers of The Call behind him, Been needs to get a little more daring than he does on On the Vergeso that he can continue to create powerful music which is more unpredictable and stylistically varied. Some nice surprises are to be found in this particular mix of hard rockers and slower songs, but not enough of them to create a fresh feel in terms of its musicality.
Bringing a distinctive counterpoint to his more hard-driving songs, while continuing to expand his repertoire of dramatic mid-tempo songs, Michael Been's edgy intelligent musical introspection shows stylistic spark. With a string of flat record deals for The Call and a series of record management changes, Been's current recording label Qwest (headed by Quincy Jones) hopes that Been's solo career will provide the fresh start he deserves.
BRENT SHORT is a free-lance writer living in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.