I’ve heard “funk rock” done badly: lack of one-beat chutzpah, excessive moaning and wailing on the part of the vocalist. Dawn to Dusk definitely isn’t that. Jim Wellman is a veteran of the craft who’s nuanced out a centered, balanced journey of rhythm and jazz which unfortunately, through occasional excessive ambition, becomes less than the sum of its parts.
Wellman plays all the instruments himself on this studio project, and should be commended on his meshing ability here, creating a musical mood more ambient than its rudiments would indicate. Ironically, the more prominent basslines are the less “funky,” though not necessarily the less effective, as “Lewontin Campbell” traverses beautifully the blue notes of the scale. It’s lounge music, good for backgrounding cafes, with roughly the technical credibility of the Brand New Heavies, Wellman’s former band, but with a shifted modus operandi, that is vocally leveling with human existence in these spoken-word forays.
Thematically, these lyrics are very “punk rock,” a sort of mortar and pestle back-to-the-drawing board look at human existence, assuming no innate traits but taking our species as potentially capable of a higher understanding and mode of living, given some ideal cognitive and cultural freedom. The Germs’ invention of the “Manimal” and Fishbone’s proclamation of what happens if you “Give a Monkey a Brain” are a couple examples. Granted, Wellman’s existential pontifications are neither confrontational nor even angry — and they do fit with the smooth, “acid jazz” music, at least as well as spoken-word paragraph-oriented theoretics on prehistoric progress ever can.
This brings up an interesting point about whether or not LSD influences music like this (I don’t think it does), and it does cater to a discussion of Wellman’s artistic weight. So it’s to his credit that his songs aren’t that “tripped out,” I guess, such as maybe the Beatles, who as a result would take a very zoomed-in, ideally content stance on things like the “Strawberry Fields” of “Fixing a Hole” in a lake cottage.
But this brings up a larger issue: is music supposed to solve the holistic world equation, or just make you content for a moment, while you’re fixing a hole or beholding the strawberry fields? Chances are, if some maligned, out-of-work person becomes homeless, it’s not for lack of evolution or intellect’s understanding, but lack rather of the ability to fit in, to relinquish outside musings and egotisms in favor of the common goal at hand, as obviously menial as it can be sometimes.
Dawn to Dusk definitely strikes the listener as the work of someone driven toward dissertation of the big picture. Pop music is very small-picture, so it’s good that it’s not pop he’s making here, that is to his credit. Some of the components, like the trumpet solo in “Lewontin Campbell,” are computer manufactured, but this fact isn’t glaring or obvious, and this stands as my favorite track on the album, possibly related to how the featured specialization of Wellman’s former band, the Brand New Heavies, was trumpet.
Judy La Rose, vocalist on track one “Lucy,” sings with a refreshing restraint prototypical of the British, as a diva fully reveling in the task of coquettishly hitting those notes. The lyrics, again, are general, commentaries on various human coercions, but the mournful, not confrontational but reflective mood of La Rose’s observations does go nicely with the loungy backing noise. La Rose in a sense becomes the harbinger of the artistic experiment here, although lyrical specificity such as the case of “Our leaders deregulated it” on the lead single “Probably Good” throws a stick in the spokes — she’s better off endearing than she is indicting.
Aside from La Rose’s sporadic appearances, which I’ve learned are a recycle from Wellman’s previous album Love Not Truth, Dawn to Dusk is essentially divided into to technical hemispheres — Wellman’s singing, and his conversational diatribe. He might be surprised to hear this, but the former works more favorably than the latter. “Premature Truth” comes around after the hit single, at which point all three songs on the album have been sort of the same tempo, and halts things nicely into a deliberate andante, sort of like “Little Umbrellas,” track four on Frank Zappa’s album Hot Rats. Wellman’s singing on this has the breathy, laid-back quality of Ad-Rock on numbers like Hello Nasty’s “I Don’t Know,” a long favorite of mine. Also “Happy Song” is further proof of how the album exhibits just enough speed variation from song to song to sound the actual work of a human, and not a Funk-Generator-2000.
More along the lines of the Beastie Boys’ “I Don’t Know,” though, that song is walking proof of music’s exemption from semantics. That simply is the denouement of the song: that he doesn’t know where humanity is going, and sometimes things are best left at this, rather than analyzing every little rudiment of progress, a process which is both the technical and the artistic fault of the project. Things start out favorably enough, but end up like a soup that had a whole bottle of cumin knocked into it, rather than just the requisite teaspoon. That is, initially, Wellman’s monotone reflections, a la “Civilization changed everything / Large populations with centralized planning” (“Lewontin Campbell”), are aggrandizing, rather than grandiose. But this whole thing, this added element of these spoken parts, would as always work better as one continuous whole, not interspersed almost as if with apology from number to number. Think Doom’s inclusion of the Bukowski reading in “Cellz” — this is not a recurring theme on the album. In a way, it’s necessarily larger than its context, and so shouldn’t be structurally truncated like it is on Dawn to Dusk, divided from song to song. It’s the same thing with La Rose’s zooming out with the “leader deregulated it line” — sure, you need to think outside the box, but if you’re this much on the outside, you still might need a firm box to crawl into at the end of the night, be it physical or artistic.