James Angell

“...Angell returns with an album of ambitious orchestral psychedelia, "Private Player," that's earned justifiable comparisons to the hallmark of the genre, Love's "Forever Changes."  - The New Yorker 


"The Paul McCartney of ''Maybe I'm Amazed'' and ''Magical Mystery Tour'' would recognize a kindred spirit in James Angell, a songwriter whose album, ''Private Player'' (Psycheclectic), enfolds his voice and keyboard in orchestral wisps and swirls. Live, his melodies should take precedence over the tape loops.

- The New York Times

James Angell

“...Angell returns with an album of ambitious orchestral psychedelia, "Private Player," that's earned justifiable comparisons to the hallmark of the genre, Love's "Forever Changes."  - The New Yorker 


"The Paul McCartney of ''Maybe I'm Amazed'' and ''Magical Mystery Tour'' would recognize a kindred spirit in James Angell, a songwriter whose album, ''Private Player'' (Psycheclectic), enfolds his voice and keyboard in orchestral wisps and swirls. Live, his melodies should take precedence over the tape loops.

- The New York Times

James Angell is an American pianist, singer, songwriter, and producer...

"The underground classic of 2002.”   ✩✩✩✩ 1/2 Stars! AMG Pick!

- Matthew Greenwald  All Music Guide 


Biography:

     Angell's music once heard is not easily forgotten, as such memorable imprints of Angell's inherent voice of musics' ultimate concern is indelible upon the souls of listeners.  His whimsical insight into Pacific Northwest roots flow through his original piano-driven music, with a fresh voice filled with the penultimate desire for soulful clarity.  He is a consummate wordsmith and musician summoning and summiting through his first hand experiences as the compelling intricacies of his work reveal themselves. He takes his audiences along for the ride -- on a modern day psychedelic trip to such distant places travelled within his life, within his mind and music.  Drawn inward and beyond, entangled within the depth of his musicianship and vast artistry of charted music landscapes, he haunts us all with his longing for an unknown future. Such ultimate concerns in his music regard dream states, the ice man, a meteor heading for Earth, and music to redeem us all from such aftermaths through the James Angell "escape hatch" into the next progression plodding formulaically, maniacally,  or tangentially.  He calls out a future that soon enough will catch-up to his fold in space and time. And there at the end of the musical piece between turmoil and resolve, he favors his music and works to resolve into redemption.  Knowing this, his music reveals that James Angell is not holding anything back from us, and listeners are compelled to never forget him or his futuristic revelations through brilliantly original music.

     As a solo artist, he can easily walk into a room, sit down at the piano and immediately captivate within a moment of his first song. His stage presence coupled with his strong vocality and musical talent inevitably leave the audience moved with such solid and creative dynamics of his work.  His lyrics are painstaking etched into the symbolic and ultimate questions about being and non-being, space and time, meaning and redemption.  These are the words of truths, delusions, and illusions he conveys within each unique song, and such music is a transference and inculcation of his soulful dimensions invading all of music history's strata and form.  His original growing catalog of music is hiding such complexity in the simplicity of plain sight. It is rather easy to admire his creativity, his wielding of musical will in the dimensions of his music, his mastery of the piano, his skybridge of synthesizers hovering over the abyss, his lyrical approachability, and his transcendent redemptive inclusion for the future that awaits his arrival. 

     James is legendary for his early work in Portland, Oregon with Neros Rome in the 1990’s.  They garnered unprecedented attention from CBS, Sony, Island Records before eventually signing with Mercury Records.

     In 2002 further attention was garnered by the likes of David Bowie and Paul McCartney for his first solo album “Private Player” which was touted as an uncompromising work of art. In 2003 after being moved by his solo piano performances in New York City, the legendary bassist John Taylor of Duran Duran asked to join him to play his music as a backing band member which later evolved into the Private Players band.  The all-star Private Players included Bassist John Taylor (Duran Duran), drummer/producer/engineer Tony Lash (Neros Rome, Heatmiser & Elliot Smith), and Kevin Cozad (Neros Rome, Obscured By Clouds, Autobahn)., guitarist Daniel Riddle (King Black Acid),  rhythm guitarist Sean Technor (King Black Acid). This later became a concert film “Private Player James Angell Live In Concert” which was released on DVD.

     In 2010 with his latest stellar effort, “The Pandemic Symphony” album, James Angell explores the musical inner-workings of his musical mind and has thereby downloaded this sound and vision to media to share with all the world.


James Angell in Neros Rome 
(Mercury Records)

James Angell in Neros Rome (Mercury Records)

James Angell & John Taylor in Concert!

John Taylor (The Power Station, Duran-Duran) on Bass!!!

James Angell -- Private Player

"The Pandemic Symphony"

The Pandemic Symphony

“Over the last decade, Portland, Oregon, has become a hotbed for contemporary music—you’ve no doubt heard of the Decemberists, Pink Martini, the Shins, Sleater-Kinney, and Stephen Malkmus. As the most imaginative and compelling of the Portland artists, James Angell has been flying mysteriously under the radar for the last decade. His resonant voice and colorfully orchestrated music have allowed him to carve out his own niche in the Pacific Northwest, but he has remained a well-kept secret elsewhere. Hard at work on his second solo album, with his third one already written in his head, record deal in hand at long last, this should be changing like a door kicked open.”
Todd Simmons  – The Brooklyn Rail, New York

I find this one the most haunting albums and definitely a story. I love the Pandemic Symphony it is pure poetry. I really love this new album. 
Inessa Anderson – KINK FM 101.9  Portland, OR

KINK FM plays "Iceman"

from "The  Pandemic Symphony"

      TO LISTEN CLICK HERE


VOCALIST, PIANIST AND NATIVE PORTLANDIAN, JAMES ANGELL RELEASES THE EPIC FOLLOW-UP TO 2003'S "PRIVATE PLAYER" WITH HIS NEW ALBUM "THE PANDEMIC SYMPHONY".

James Angell brings in 2011 with his monumental undertaking the album "The Pandemic Symphony". Angell's latest vision was a nearly 6-year crusade, bringing a world-class production to the ears of his Portland, Oregon audience and beyond. Angell is no stranger to the Portland music scene playing and touring both locally and nationally for 25 years, carrying with him some of the most original heartfelt lyrics and soul-stirring music to be heard. During his time fronting Portland legends Neros Rome the band was courted by major labels such as Island, MCA, Capital and Mercury the last two offering a coveted five-album deal. Thanks to label takeovers all the offers ended up DOA. 

Motivated by frustration he retreated to his cabin in the woods and soon emerged with an album, a diary of fatherhood and marriage titled “Private Player”. The New York Times gushed "...Angell returns with an album of ambitious orchestral psychedelia. Private Player, that's earned justifiable comparisons to the hallmark of the genre, Love's "Forever Changes." The album also garnered rave reviews from the likes of David Bowie, Paul McCartney and bassist John Taylor of Duran Duran who was to later join his band. “This is the most honest music I have ever heard” mused Mr. Taylor. He went on, performing with Angell’s all-star lineup two sold-out shows in Portland. One at The Crystal Ballroom the other at the at the Aladdin Theater. Bowie even went so far as offering to personally sign him to his label ISO over over a phone call to Angell's residence. The conversation ended with "We will pick this up in two weeks where we have left off, when I'm back from tour".

Angell counted the seconds, minutes, days and finally weeks. Silence. Undeterred by the phone call that was to never come, Angell once again took matters into his own hands. Between day jobs and tribulations he created an album of ear-candy with baroque depth, a stellar recording that could still be brought into the live forum of the stage. “The Pandemic Symphony” was tracked everywhere from the family kitchen to the woods of upstate New York where it was to be finally mixed. 

It all begins with the trenchant-juggernaut "I Followed Myself To NYC", a frenzied search for lost loved ones. Hot on its heels is the range-pounding rhythm of saloon house rouser "The Horse No One Can Ride" in which you can practically smell the horse shit, cheap perfume, then finally falling head-first into the whiskey-soaked skid marks on the barroom floor.  Surging forward the album continues with "James of the Trees". One listens as the lush rainforest turns to scorched Earth. Ratcheting down into one of Angell's specialties, the delivery of sad yet strangely uplifting melodies, he recalls for you first hand the experience of musician as world-weary traveler in “The Cost Of Art”. “The Ballad of Liz and Richard” tells a story of love and war fought while swimming against the undertow of booze-fueled romance.  Angell soon brings the chemistry to a sexual boil with the slinky funk of "Good Girl" and "Margot Please". Curveballs are soon thrown with the suspension of time frozen in the epic "Iceman". One ascends to the spirit plane accompanied by Tibetan-like chants and rave up Motown vocals. The album concludes with a sea-shanty "Mansion Of Happiness". It speaks of the patience required in pursuing a no-compromise artistic vision, yet eventually winning the golden ticket, both metaphorically and literally. James is not alone in this victory, the audience also gets to cash in, sharing with him the prize.


"Private Player"

James Angell "Private Player" care of Psycheclectic Records 2002.

✩✩✩✩ 1/2 Stars! AMG Pick! 

"The underground classic of 2002.” 

- Matthew Greenwald

All Music Guide 


One of the most interesting and ultimately valuable new records to come out of 2002, James Angell’s “Private Player” is akin to Love’s “Forever Changes” in terms of overall elegance and strangeness. It becomes, in the end, a brilliant exercise in modern day psychedelia. Angell’s music is unique in that he wields influences as far- flung as jazz, soul, pop and psychedelic music - often all at the same time. The result is an intoxicating, narcotic voyage, yet has all the luster of a classical piece. It’s not 'easy listening' nor is it probably intended to be. Angell’s lyrics are both freeform and literate, and combined with the multi-layered arrangements, create a cinematic, almost Bosch-esque atmosphere where the lines of sanity, reality and fantasy are often blurred. For an example of this, the listener is directed to the third track, ‘Ed Blue Bottle’, which puts all of these elements together. Unsettling -- yes indeed...beautiful listening, absolutely. Aside from the beautiful ‘Treat Song’ featuring guest trumpet player Eric Matthews, the album's highlight may be epic closer, ’Sweet Bell’. With it's eerie, child’s voice providing an introduction to Angell's vocal before surrendering to a dissonant soundscape that can only be compared to Tim Buckley’s “Lorca” album, this is one of the album's greatest moments. “Private Player” is an experience that needs to be played and re-played several times preferably in a row, before the listener can fully realize how much music is really happening. In this way, it challenges the listener to become involved. This is not always a popular thing to do in these days of doubt and limited attention span, but is indeed necessary."


Bruce Miller, Magnet Magazine - 

“...Angell’s piano, songs & vocals—the latter sounding at times like the whispered sing-speak of Ira Kaplan or Freddie Mercury subdued by the purr from a pack of affectionate house cats—that row this skiff of an album over placid waters. “Dear Dying Friend” chugs along to the rhythm of an electronic camel, becoming friendlier with each chorus, the synthesized push-and-pull finally giving way to a more organic version of this lugubrious tempo. “Treat Song,” with Eric Matthews’ muted trumpet, lopes along like the heart of Saturday night as Angell lullabies his daughter into dreams of spaceships and log-perched ponderances. “Ooh Love” is a tease, flirting and breaking promises. Angell hangs onto slow, elastic cadences and comes up with an album just odd enough to have never given bloated and pallid arena pop such as ELO or Elton John any trouble, though he often sounds like a smarter version of both." 


David Segal, Alternative Press - 

This is “Baroque orchestral rock that’ll make you feel like you’re smashed on absinthe. How is it? With its beautiful tunes and emotive vocals ‘Private Player’ introduces a major new talent. Kindred spirits: David Bowie, Tim Buckley, Rufus Wainwright...” 


John Taylor, Duran Duran -

"I had no pre-conceived ideas and thought what the hell is this? I just felt the album deserved an audience and right now, I'm hungry for music that makes me cry. It's powerful, like a love affair. A few weeks later I caught James in concert in New York and was amazed by his show. You just knew big things would happen"  (Bass for Private Player Live) 


Chris Douridas, KCRW Los Angeles -

“The end result is a beautifully crafted album.”- NPR Sound Check - WNYC NYC
“A Beautifully crafted solo debut” "New ground-breaker!"


 DJ Maria, WFMU New Jersey  -
"Why did it take me so long to find out about this work??? The music is strange yet familiar, comforting and unsettling, lush and melodic, hummable but never gets old. This is complex intelligent pop, or whatever you want to call it. The fact that Angell has cited Bach Fugues as one of his main influences says loads about the richness of this listening experience. I am waiting with baited breath for his next album. Bring it ON!!" 

(Oh, it's on nice lady! At least five CD's were sent to various DJ's at the WFMU,  followed up with label email, and phone calls a year or longer before this review.  Did you hear the new album yet?)


Michael R. Lee,  In Music We Trust -
“Rave reviews, plus the interest of David Bowie, (who called Angell enthusiastically last summer), Paul McCartney, (who has selected "Ooh Love" for the next Garland Appeal disc and are planning with the Pasadena Symphony to perform with Angell this Spring) and John Taylor (bassist for Duran Duran and Power Station).”


Scott D. Lewis - The Oregonian

Arts & Entertainment
“Angell's compositions are sweeping, unhurried and embellished enough to keep the surprises coming without becoming cluttered. Angell's understated, breathy voice is the ideal complement, and, overall, this is music that comes from an artistic rather than commercial drive.” 


BUY CD

Private Player - Live!

James Angell, John Taylor, Kevin Czad

REVIEWS FOR PRIVATE PLAYER IN CONCERT DVD


Before a sold-out crowd at the intimate Lola's Ballroom on January 3, 2003, the Aladdin Theatre was the group, now known as Private Player's second show. And what a show it is. Including the nine songs from that performance as well as interviews with James Angell, John Taylor, and Daniel Riddle. Private Player In Concert gives you a bird's eye view of the motivation and passion behind the record, as well as a look at the stunning, awe-inspiring live show the band was able to capture on the big stage of the Aladdin. 

The camera angels are good. The music sounds clean, precise, and lively, the band at the top of their game. Everyone is enjoying himself or herself. It's more than a show, it's a performance, it's music and entertainment. Fans were treated to more than just a rock band playing on stage. They got their monies worth and more. I'll give it an A-. 

  Alex Steininger  In Music We Trust


MANDIBLE is proud to present:

JAMES ANGELL / PRIVATE PLAYER IN CONCERT

featuring: John Taylor, Daniel Riddle, Tony Lash, Kevin Cozad and Sean Tichenor.


On March 14th, 2003 James Angell and his band Private Player were joined by none other than Duran Duran’s John Taylor for a performance at Portland, Oregon’s Aladdin Theatre. Taylor had heard Angell’s CD Private Player a few months earlier through a mutual friend and was so impressed that, upon meeting Angell at a club in New York City, he offered to lend his hand in presenting the songs live. Angell, a longtime Duran Duran fan, was ecstatic with the idea.

Several notable Portland musicians were recruited for the project. Ultimately Private Player (the band) consisted of Angell, Taylor, Daniel Riddle (leader of King Black Acid), Tony Lash (noted producer and former drummer for Heatmiser), Kevin Cozad (Neros Rome, Obscured By Clouds, Autobahn) and Sean Tichenor (King Black Acid). After a brief series of fast-and-furious rehearsals, the band debuted on January 3rd, 2003 at Portland’s Lola’s Room. Reception by the sold-out crowd was enthusiastic, and immediately another show was in the works.

Treat Song Clip

Dear Dying Friend Clip

Hiding In Plain Sight Clip

=========================

PRIVATE PLAYER IN CONCERT is an exhilarating document of the group’s second show. The band’s chemistry brings new life and energy to the layered pop psychedelia found in Angell’s studio work. The 50-minute concert film contains nine songs - seven from the CD Private Player and two previously unreleased tracks. The DVD also includes two radio station interviews with Angell, Taylor and Riddle, as well as a photo slideshow.

© 2004 Tony Lash.


Track Listing:

  1. Hiding In Plain Sight
  2. Who's Wakin' Me Up?
  3. Ed Blue Bottle
  4. Ice Cream & Pez
  5. Ooh Love
  6. Treat song
  7. Call Off The War
  8. Picture Perfect
  9. Dear Dying Friend


Technical Info:

Run time: 50 minutes (concert), 12 minutes (interviews). Video: color, full screen. Audio: 5.0 five channel Dolby Digital surround.


"Iceman" 

James Angell

"The Pandemic Symphony"

"Ed Blue Bottle" 

James Angell 

"Private Player"

2002 © ℗ Psycheclectic Records

"Treat Song"

James Angell 

"Private Player"

2002 © ℗ Psycheclectic Records

"The Ballad of Liz and Richard"

James Angell

"The Pandemic Symphony"

Interviews

The Making of The Pandemic Symphony

by Todd Simmons The Brooklyn Rail, New York. 


It’s not easy to describe the buzz you catch off the music that James Angell cooks up. I’m not referring to industry buzz, because up until recently the music business has had their collective blinders on regarding Angell’s mesmerizing brand of classically influenced lounge rock. I’m talking about what happens to your synapses when you press PLAY and you’re led into his lush and idiosyncratic world.


Photo by Todd Simmons

Raised by a Baptist minister on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, Angell learned to play piano and sing as a child in church; he was fed a steady diet of classical music, hymns, the Columbia House Record Club, and—of all things—the soundtrack to Ben Hur. Angell’s music has become a strangely melodic blend of Sinatra, Prince, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Leonard Cohen that is just as gripping live as it is on record. You feel as though you’ve heard these sounds before, but you’re not sure if it was in a dream or in the dentist’s chair, tripping on nitrous oxide.

I caught up with Angell in New York City in early autumn, while he was in town for talks with the newly formed Dream Makers label, and got a preview of his upcoming double album, The Pandemic Symphony. With the looming prospect of having proper support for his eighteen-song record, and with the follow-up already in the works, his enthusiasm was palpable. In a baffling case of major-label ineptitude, Capitol Records had passed on his brilliant first album, Private Player—a finished record that merely needed releasing—with no real explanation. A trend-obsessed, risk-aversive music industry just couldn’t seem to comprehend what to do with him. He wasn’t easily categorizable; all he managed to be was a wildly talented singer/songwriter with piano-driven tunes that veered into narcotic variations on the pop song with a sweetness that resists the trap of cynicism. That first record did build a small but loyal following, however. Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Angell’s onetime drummer and now leader of the Dandy Warhols, was so smitten that he passed it along to David Bowie, who liked it so much that he called Angell at home to praise his work. John Taylor of Duran Duran saw Angell play a solo piano show and volunteered to play bass for him for a few gigs. Yet, still no record deal.

Aside from a modest distribution deal with Portland’s very independent Psycheclectic Records, Angell has been forced to make things happen on his own. From building a cottage for his wife and daughter with his own hands to recording in his kitchen and his friends’ basements, he has not permitted the absence of financial support to hinder his process. “I don’t ever want to be jaded” he tells me. With help from some friends, who also happen to be local veteran musicians (including Tony Lash of Heatmiser; Eric Matthews; former bandmate Tod Morrisey; Daniel Riddle of King Black Acid; and Steve Hanford from Poison Idea) and family members (brother Theo and ten-year-old daughter Astrid) he has made his music on his own terms, largely funded by working as a carpenter. “I only knew [that] if I could finish this music it would save my life,” he confesses.

In a twist of irony for one of the rare musicians who don’t cite the Beatles as a primary influence, Angell was ultimately led to his first significant record deal by none other than Sir Paul McCartney. The director of McCartney’s charitable Garland Appeal cancer research project heard “Ooh Love,” from Private Player (Angell’s moody exploration of relationship struggles and hope), and brought it to Paul, who thought it was extraordinary and agreed that they should use it for one of their charity albums. Unfortunately, the next one was a Nashville record, so Angell’s track was put on ice. Several years later that same man, Dennis D’Amico, became the head of the Dream Makers label and made the signing of Angell a priority. “I’ve been in the music business for thirty-five years and I can honestly say I’ve never heard anyone like him,” D’Amico says. He’s also given Angell access to the label’s state-of-the-art Barbershop Studios, in Lake Hoptacong, N.J., and engineer Jason Cosaro, who has worked with artists ranging from Motõrhead to Madonna. D’Amico told me that the label “is out to change the model that has been so anti-artist, and create an environment where everyone can make a living”—not the kind of treatment that Angell has come to expect in his previous twenty years working as a musician.

Like his fellow Portlander the late Elliott Smith, Angell was in a rock band (Nero’s Rome) in the fertile Northwest music scene in the nineties, but he never quite found his footing, or couldn’t find his organic voice through all the distorted guitars. Among the hard truths about life in a touring group, however, he did learn the art of collaboration and “figured out where the melody lives in the music.” In the end, he and Smith both dissolved their bands and headed off to find the core of themselves musically. Smith left Heatmiser and stripped it all down to acoustic guitar and vocals. Angell went off to the woods and rediscovered his upright piano.

In the nineties, Nero’s Rome flirted with major labels, put albums out on local indie labels and, after near–major label signings fell through twice, finally drove off the road and abandoned the vehicle. James quit the music scene and went off with his wife Erin to raise their daughter. Then he disappeared into the dark channels of his mind to try to figure out the next path to take. He dusted off the piano and started poking the keys a little until he felt a spark. He realized that standing up on stage in front of a band clutching a microphone stand was not his true calling. He went back to work on his music and soon began to assemble musicians to help him flesh out his new vision. The result was Private Player, a record that The New Yorker called “ambitious orchestral psychedelia.”

The finished songs on the new album defy categorization, as usual. That is not to say that they aren’t accessible&mdashthey’re just not like anything else you know. “The Horse that No One Could Ride” sounds like an up-tempo western chase number churned out in some sort of psychedelic Dodge City saloon, with ghostly voices drifting through the mix and Angell as a raspy-throated messenger of doom. As a singer, Angell moves without effort from smoky growl to playful falsetto, sometimes within the same track. “Good Girl” has the sexy groove of a mid-tempo Prince track with a penetrating guitar line. “The Ballad of Richard and Liz” is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” set to a quirky waltz. There is so much going on within the framework of each song that Angell himself likens his music to “a mobile,” “a party conversation,” “a Rubik’s Cube,” or the drawings of M. C. Escher. His greatest influence, however, is Bach’s fugues: The concept of four separate melodies operating at the same time has become a through-line for him musically.

Lyrically, every song tells a tale that seems to be dark yet whimsical on some perverse level. On The Pandemic Symphony, the themes tend to roam further beyond the bedside and out into the universe. During a particularly dark period in his life Angell started thinking about the human race as “a virus” or as a “pandemic” that was destroying the planet. Upon further research he discovered that pandemic in Latin means “of the people.” So, in a way, it’s a soundtrack and indictment of human behavior in the twenty-first century. Another new song talks about coming to NYC after 9/11 to find his “long-lost brother.” In the propulsive, surging track he intones, “If you ain’t afraid to commit suicide—you can do anything you wanna do”—which is a comment not only on the horrors of modern warfare but on his career. If he’s not beholden to any special interest, there’s nothing stopping him from making the kinds of records that he wants to make. If he can build a house, he can make a record.

Over the last decade, Portland, Oregon, has become a hotbed for contemporary music—you’ve no doubt heard of the Decemberists, Pink Martini, Dead Moon, the Shins, Sleater-Kinney, and Stephen Malkmus. As the most imaginative and compelling of the Portland artists, James Angell has been flying mysteriously under the radar for the last decade. His resonant voice and colorfully orchestrated music have allowed him to carve out his own niche in the Pacific Northwest, but he has remained a well-kept secret elsewhere. Hard at work on his second solo album, with his third one already written in his head, record deal in hand at long last, this should be changing like a door kicked open.


 BrooklynRail.org

Todd Simmons is a writer/actor/improviser. He lives in the East Village...near McDonalds, but at least 100 feet away at all times.

Waiting for the (Thin) Man (David Bowie)

by Todd Simmons The Brooklyn Rail, New York.


Somewhere off I-5 in the woods south of Portlandia, James Angell, Oregon’s wizard of psychedelic pop, is probably tinkering in his home studio and thinking, “It’s still your move, David Bowie.” After all, Angell was minding his own business in 2004, eating breakfast with his wife and daughter, when a call came in from New York. He never asked for it. He was living amongst the Portland civilians, quietly creating original music and working for a living, trying to forget about the dying commercial music industry. Just as Bob Pollard taught school in Ohio on breaks from Guided by Voices and Mark Ibold tended bar in NoHo between the end of Pavement and his new gig with Sonic Youth. Just like those guys, James Angell couldn’t sit around waiting for the biz to get it. He built stuff for a living, to feed his family. He built his own house. In which he built a studio. Where he sat with his eggs when his wife Erin answered the phone. “James,” she said, “it’s…uh…David Bowie on the line.”


The Thin White Duke had gotten his paws on one of Angell’s albums in NYC and “loved it,” according to mutual friend Courtney Taylor-Taylor (former drummer for Angell’s defunct psych-rock outfit, Nero’s Rome). Living near the NYC studio where Taylor-Taylor’s band the Dandy Warhols was working, Bowie popped round for a mug of tea to check out what the younger musicians were into. Bowie was cool like that. He had lived in NYC for years and was notorious for dropping in at local clubs, keeping up with the burgeoning scene afoot in Brooklyn. He’d released two well received albums in the ’00s and was touring incessantly. Bowie said that he was seeking unsigned talent for a new label, so the Portland Dandy did his old friend a favor and handed him Angell’s hypnotic first solo album, Private Player. Impressed, Bowie quickly tracked Angell down. Skeptical that James wasn’t already committed to a label at that time, he nevertheless got his number from Taylor-Taylor and dialed the cabin outside of Stumptown.

Angell took the receiver. “Hello?” The cheerfully refined cockney voice on the other end introduced himself: “James, this is David Bowie. Is this a good time?” Incredulous, Angell gazed out the window into some pine trees as the former Ziggy Stardust described how very much he’d enjoyed listening to Private Player. “This is the sort of music I would hope to make myself,” Bowie explained, as Angell tried to keep the earth from swallowing him up. “He’s actually pitching me,” Angell realized with amazement.

Following the demise of two major-label deals in the ’90s for Nero’s Rome, Angell and guitarist Tod Morrisey went their separate ways. For Angell, that meant getting back to the woods to build a house, and to his first love, the piano. Angell was home-schooled by his Baptist minister father, and he learned to sing and play piano in church as a child. His first influence was Bach, and he wasn’t exposed to rock until much later. As traces of pop music started to penetrate the pious filter—mostly from passing cars and movie soundtracks—strange seeds were planted in his young imagination. He started a rock band that was “too difficult” to categorize by industry standards, and they were washed away in a wave of grunge hysteria, unable to find a niche. Weary of bands, smoky vans, and fast-talking suits, Angell retreated to his cabin to create Private Player. And then Bowie called.

He was packed for a European tour, and hoped that James might refrain from signing a deal anywhere before they could sit down and come to an “arrangement.” Angell was thrilled that somebody who knew something about good music was interested in his. He quickly decided that even if the industry knuckleheads who had yet to come around to him did so tomorrow, he would politely tell them to…uh…scram. He’d happily await the end of Bowie’s “A Reality Tour.” Who better to shepherd his dreamy orchestral pop music than this chameleonic (and influential) figure? Things were certainly looking up since they’d scrambled those eggs for breakfast.

And then fate stepped in. Bowie’s tour ended abruptly when he suffered a massive coronary that brought all his activities to a full stop. He would need to have major heart surgery and scrap all plans—including the post-it note he stuck on his SoHo fridge below Iman’s pilates schedule that said: Call James Angell back (or so we might imagine). All future recording plans were cancelled. The undertaking of starting a new record label would have to wait. Bowie’s heart was ailing, his life was at risk, and the ride was over for now—so much so that Rolling Stone, nearly 10 years later, asked in a cover story: “Where is Bowie?”

Years after that fateful tour, following a performance with the Loser’s Lounge at Joe’s Pub, I was speaking to musician Joe Hurley when the subject of Bowie came up. Hurley told me that he’d worked with Bowie associate Tony Visconti, and Visconti had told him that Bowie was in more serious shape than had been revealed in the press. “We may have seen the last of Bowie as a public figure, according to Tony,” Hurley sighed. “And he should know.” So it was confirmed by Bowie’s longtime producer: He had gone into hiding to recuperate. And subsequently, aside from a few random guest gigs, the man has gone from public workaholic to private Garbo.

And where did all this leave James Angell? With two magnificent solo records under his belt and countless musicians from a flourishing Portland scene willing to tour if he could just garner the necessary financial support. A decade after the surprise phone call, Angell is still in Portland, building things, well accustomed to making things happen on his own. Both Private Player and last year’s self-released The Pandemic Symphony can be found on Amazon and iTunes. Angell has not toured per se, but has played to audiences on both coasts and appeared on various radio shows. One of these live performances caught the attention of Duran Duran’s John Taylor, who was a bona fide fan of Private Player. In late 2002, he attended Angell’s solo gig at the now-defunct East Village cabaret Fez. This encounter led to a showcase concert at Portland’s Avalon Theatre in 2003, involving some of Angell’s longtime collaborators and the pop superstar on bass. A live DVD of the event, Private Player in Concert, was released in 2004, revealing the intricate power of Angell’s piano-heavy songs when fleshed out with a full band. That night at the Avalon, Daniel Riddle’s spacey ringing guitar lines and Kevin Cozad’s synth and vocal harmonies reproduced the atmospherics that are always so potent on record. A rhythm section consisting of drummer/producer Tony Lash of Heatmiser and Taylor on bass added the propulsive pacing and thrust that Angell’s piano and vocals rode throughout the tight set. With Angell’s highly charged performance and the audience’s fervent reaction the show looks like a career-defining moment, but no major record deal would follow from it. It would, however, give Angell much-needed momentum going into the creation of his current album, The Pandemic Symphony.

The self-released, ambitious new record’s opener, “I Followed Myself to NYC,” is a scorching post-9/11 track that peels out of the gate and races to a finish, climaxing with an angelic chorus of voices. It is one of several tracks that are faster than anything Angell’s done previously, and establishes early on that this record is more ambitious and larger in scale than Private Player. The song captures the bizarre horror of that day: “A hole in the ground the size of the moon” is what Angell finds in New York after flying in from Oregon to find his “long-lost brother” in the aftermath. “Somebody’s gonna swing for it—burn in Hell forever.” Sidestepping the obvious tragedy of the terrible day, he calls out the facts like a street-corner philosopher, in a disturbingly playful, sing-song cadence, “If you ain’t afraid to commit suicide—if you ain’t afraid to let go of it and die—you can do anything you wanna do.”

Angell’s lyrics are both tender and toxic; they could be semi-autobiographical or pulled from newspaper headlines. Topics range from a frozen Iceman to 9/11 and beyond. The pleas of the nearly perfect “Hiding in Plain Sight” convey an artist’s anguish as he implores his wife to keep her faith in him after years of a struggle leading from optimism to despair (“I know I’ve been so angry—it’s so hard to wait”) and back.

“The Horse No One Can Ride” is a drug-user’s fantasy revenge plot against an exploitative dealer. Tightly wound, explosive rhythms gallop along, replete with whip-cracks and Riddle’s tremolo guitar, manifesting as a sleazy thriller about a man’s attempt to wrest control of his life back from an urban predator. The lyrics are hissed in a raspy Dirty Harry voice, with myriad ghoulish vocals swooping through the mix like bats, with High Noon urgency.

“Iceman” is a gospel-tinged nursery-rhyme dirge about a family man who is trapped in a mountain snowstorm while out exploring, and is packed in a block of ice for 10,000 years. It is either the story of “Otzi the Iceman,” who was discovered in the Alps in 1991, or a cautionary tale about crawling within ourselves as artists only to alienate those around us. Is it a savvy self-conscious lesson in taking the moment for granted, while obsessed with future developments, like waiting for Bowie?

The lineup on The Pandemic Symphony is practically a roster of Portland’s rock elite: King Black Acid leader Riddle, Eric Matthews (Cardinal),  Thee Slayer Hippy (Poison Idea, Obscured By Clouds), Kevin Cozad (Neros Rome, Obscured By Clouds), and Tony Lash, plus Angell’s wife, daughter, and brother Theo Angell, a brilliant, Brooklyn-based musician/filmmaker. The record’s intricate production and top-flight musicianship make it sound expensive, but the richly layered psych-pop sound was achieved on a tight budget. Pandemic is an innovative pastiche of vocal layering, pianos, and alien guitar effects that can be both darkly cinematic and dance-able; the intoxicating atmosphere that radiates throughout gives this “solo” project a full band feel.

Attempting to describe Angell’s debut album Private Player, the New Yorker compared it to the band Love’s psychedelic masterpiece, Forever Changes. Although clearly a compliment, that is perhaps missing the mark. The guitar on Angell’s records is there to support the piano, so his music feels more confessional than Arthur Lee’s. On The Pandemic Symphony the ballad “The Cost of Art,” with only his piano behind him, Angell addresses Portland’s polarizing transplant, Everclear leader Art Alexakis, who enjoyed a fast rise and harder fall. Angell calls him out for moving in and then mistreating the locals on his way to success before losing it all in the end. But he also exposes his maturity as a songwriter by acknowledging the irony of his criticizing the fallen star without having reached that level himself. There is understandable heartache but no bitterness in Angell’s work. On The Pandemic Symphony there are hints of James Blake and early ’70s Bowie, with dashes of Leonard Cohen and Prince, yet with his own musical vocabulary Angell remains dreamy, defiant, sexy, and elusive. With or without major-label support, Angell’s canon is an ever-evolving cabinet of curiosities, and if he hears the new record, David Bowie is certain to interrupt another breakfast with a phone call.

Editor's Note:

After this article was published, we heard from longtime David Bowie producer/bandmate/friend Tony Visconti, and it seems that something was lost in translation in our chat with Joe Hurley regarding Mr. Bowie's health status. We regret the miscommunication and apologize to Tony and David for jumping to conclusions based on Mr. Bowie's low-key industry presence these last few years. Tony was kind enough to share this firsthand update on his longtime friend's current state:

"In the past few years I have met up with Bowie for lunch, as old friends do. Oddly enough, I saw David yesterday and he looked, sounded, and laughed like a healthy man. He's rosy-cheeked, in excellent health, and full of sharp, witty humor. He is in SERIOUSLY GOOD SHAPE. He is in fine fettle and I am certain the world hasn't heard the last of him."

Needless to say, we're thrilled to hear it.

—Dave Mandl

 Brooklynrail.org

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