In an episode of MTV Europe’s This Is Our Music, a series dedicated to experimental and avant-pop musicians from across the globe, Bill Wells spoke about his love of playing slightly out-of-tune pianos: “It’s maybe more the kind of piano that you would find in somebody’s house, or something like that… Sometimes a very good grand piano can seem just a wee bit sort of pompous in itself, you know.”
That’s as good a summation of Wells’s free-ranging, down-to-earth and imperfect aesthetic as you can get. It’s also one of the reasons why his compositions sit so comfortably with groups like Maher Shalal Hash Baz, the Japanese naïve-pop group who embrace error as both an inevitability of living and creating art, and as a means to an end. (Indeed, Wells has collaborated with Maher across two fabulous albums, 2006’s Osaka Bridge and 2009’s Gok.)
On Lemondale, Wells worked with members of Maher, their colleagues Tenniscoats and Nikaido Kazumi, and other collaborators like avant-garde pianist Satoko Fujii and resident polymath Jim O’Rourke. The majority of Wells’s work here, as in the past, has been his gifted arrangements of people — getting the right folks together in the right space is half of the victory, and making sure they’re simpatico with the compositions and Wells’s ideological position is the clincher. With Lemondale recorded across one day in Japan, arranging the right players was always going to be paramount, but he’s pulled it off again.
While it doubtless helps that Wells has prior form with members of Maher, even with that to fall back on, the players’ sensitivity to Wells’s melodic voice is incredibly strong. Sometimes, though, you can hear them pulling his music apart, in a most respectful way. A great example of the latter is “Different Pans,” where tenor, trumpet, trombone and tuba collapse together like the instrumentalists have been caught smoking out the back of a rehearsal for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. More often, the disruptive forces come in from the sidelines, like Tetsuya Umeda’s “fan, etc,” whose brittle, needling tones scratch at your ears while the rest of the group plays along with Wells’s melody heads.
Elsewhere, Wells has Saya and Kazumi sighing over a dark dream of chordal shifts on “Piano Rolls,” before O’Rourke stretches things out with some fantastic prepared guitar. That guitar reappears in the margins of “Effective Demand,” though O’Rourke is just as likely to pull out some great lines to complement Wells’s see-sawing piano playing. The closing title track borrows the changes from “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” seemingly half for a laugh, but also half to reconstitute the churchiness that sits at the heart of such a well-known progression. As with all of Wells’s music, both “Lemondale” the song and Lemondale the album are warm and human, in love with the possibilities of song, alternately grinning wildly at the possibilities afforded by unexpected conjunctions of sound, and then almost unexpectedly wringing the melancholy from your heart.