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John Cunningham - John Cunningham: 1998-2002

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Artist: John Cunningham

Album: John Cunningham: 1998-2002

Label: Ashmont

Review date: Jun. 29, 2010

Excepting perhaps Oasis, and a few self-consciously nostalgic power poppers aping Please Please Me-era style, few pop music acts are well described by (or benefit much from) a Beatles comparison. Add John Cunningham to the shortlist: impressively, his wistful, sophisticated pop manages to distinctly recall late-period Beatles without sounding like a pale impression. In fact, some of the more disappointing solo efforts of Lennon and McCartney could have taken a lesson from Cunningham.

Born in the Beatles’ birthplace of Liverpool, in 1969 — the same year the Beatles completed their last recordings — Cunningham appropriately exudes the charming, ditties-cum-chamber pop air of the Fab Four, especially from the White Album onward. Like many of the later recordings by the Beatles (think “Martha My Dear” or “You Never Give Me Your Money”), Cunningham’s songs are throw-away classics that amble from one gorgeously arranged melodic fragment to another, taking such sharp but successful turns that their immense preciousness doesn’t become tedious, even upon repeated listens. Built around his gentle Anglo voice and guitar, Cunningham’s compositions are often rounded out with some combination of drums, bass, trumpet, violin, cello, straight piano, Fender Rhodes, and Hammond organ.

John Cunningham: 1998-2002 is a compilation of Cunningham’s two most recent albums, Homeless House and Happy-Go-Unlucky. Homeless House, the earlier of the two albums, is the slower, more melancholy of the pair; it sounds like an album-length riff on the aesthetic of “I’m So Tired.” Occasional flourishes aside (the title track boasts a guitar and bass pairing that unmistakably recalls “Come Together,” for example), it’s the overall feeling of the album — immensely languid but never boring — that impresses most vividly upon these ears. Homeless House manages to make other dreamy, bedroom pop reference points seem downright up-tempo, if not anthemic. Given the self-consciously slow feel of Homeless House, Cunningham’s lyrical preoccupation with time is especially resonant. On songs like “Imitation Time,” “Quiet and Slow Time,” “Infinity Is Ending,” and the title track, Cunningham sings of how the seasons are passing — and “everyone is getting young” —but, “we’ve still got time.”

Slow as he may sometimes be, Cunningham is never lazy. And he picks up the pace markedly on Happy-Go-Unlucky. Though they are balanced by throwbacks to Cunningham’s slow time fixation (which reappears directly on “Take Your Time”), jaunty, piano-driven numbers here set a markedly different tone. With the added energy come crisper, more readily memorable melodies. The lively “Losing Myself Too,” and “You Shine,” for instance, are less Lennon, and more McCartney, or Emitt Rhodes. Fortunately, thanks to his unwavering songwriting rigor, Cunningham walks the tightrope: just as he never succumbs to undifferentiated atmospherics on Homeless House, neither does he fall victim here to the too-daintily-trimmed “classism” of, say, Eric Matthews.

A devoted fan of Cunningham’s work, Joe Pernice has done pop music lovers a great service by coordinating the release of John Cunningham: 1998-2002 through his personal label, Ashmont Records. Though the rest of Cunningham’s oeuvre remains sadly hard to find (this reviewer has been able to track down only a used copy of 1994’s excellent Bringing in the Blue), this new compilation makes easily and cheaply available two albums whose strikingly under-appreciated status feels like a relic of pre-blog, pre-filesharing days.

By Benjamin Ewing

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