Monday, November 13, 2017

Michael VM, the happiest man on earth, 2017

Album Review

Beginnings, ends, loss, change, new beginnings. That's life. We don't move through all of those phases with the speed or ease that it takes to write them down, but they touch all of us at one point or another. Michael VM (neé Mike V) was the fearless leader of the New Jersey-born The Everymen for over six years. In the annals of rock music there have been few, if any, bands more appropriately named. The Everymen ground it out, releasing 3 albums and a slew of EPs, playing over 200 shows per year to both packed houses and empty rooms, and bringing it every night with the determination and abandon of a band that didn't have the powerful connections or big-money backing of some others. After doing their best to punch their way to that big break, The Everymen decided to call it quits sometime in 2016. The Everymen's farewell show this past May stands as one of the wildest, most joyful things I've experienced since starting this site.

Through all of that, Michael VM experienced big changes -- devastating loss, disappointment, and the elation of new beginnings. Thoughts and feelings piled up as he criss-crossed the country with his rock and roll band. Finally, Michael and his then-fiancé made the big decision to leave the Northeast -- the place where Michael had deep roots -- for North Carolina. The move opened up the floodgates of creativity, and the result is Michael VM's first solo album, the happiest man on earth.

In some ways, the happiest man on earth couldn't be more different than Michael VM's work with The Everymen. He trades wild, Jersey Shore-influenced rock and roll for mostly subdued Americana. He delivers his lyrics in a sometimes whispered drawl. In other ways, though, this is pure Mike V -- honest, straightforward, from-the-heart.

The album sets the scene with "His Name Is Jesus," a short, live recording of some gospel singers. Things then move into "Old Friend" and "Oh Susie," two tracks that -- atmospherically anyway -- remind me a bit of the work Cat Power did on The Greatest when Chan Marshall worked with The Memphis Rhythm Band. On "Old Friend," Michael VM speaks to someone (maybe himself) with whom he's lost touch over the years. "Oh Susie" deals with Michael's despondency following the loss of his mother. The song itself, though, is a sonic party. It features handclaps, whistling, and a saxophone. It's possible to celebrate those we've lost even in our darkest moments of missing them.

The middle section of the happiest man on earth becomes somber. Michael VM looks wistfully at his past on "Neon Light (A Song For Tuckerton)," addresses his decision to start anew in the South on "Chapel Hill" and "Nothing Good Happens After Midnight," and expresses anger and grief at the loss of his mother on standout track "Before The Moon."

Things turn hopeful in the album's final third.

"Handyman Blues" is a song with which I can identify. It features, simply, electric piano and Michael VM discussing how he's "a writer, not a decorator." "It may look like I'm just reading the paper, but these ideas I'll turn to gold dust later." "Before The Sun" uses the same lyrics as "Before The Moon," but the arrangement and the entire feel of the song convey a sense of acceptance and relief instead of anger and resentment. Both "A Girl Named Lou, Pt. 3" and "The Sinking Ship" feel darker, but both also give off the "you and me against the world" vibe that comes when two people are in it for the long haul together.

Michael VM headed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record the happiest man on earth at Cypress Moon Studios with Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes), Albert Rothstein, and Jamie Sego. Joining him for the sessions were Joe Garner (bass), Jonathan Oliphant (pianos / organs), Jeremy Gibson (drums), Kimi Samson (viola), Caleb Elliott (cello / guitar), Scott Zillitto (sax / backing vocals), and Andy Baxter (backing vocals). The result sounds amazing. It's also authentic and honest, just like everything Michael VM (or Mike V) has done before.

the happiest man on earth is out now on Suah Sounds.

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