Graded on a Curve: MERCH,
Amour Bohemian

MERCH is headed up by San Franciscan Joe Medina, and Amour Bohemian is the project’s latest album. Best described as ambitious symphonic pop-rock, roughly 65 musicians had their hands in its creation, yet it’s unequivocally an auteur-driven work, and one that thrives on discipline. Even more so, it benefits from concision; a whole lot of new music is getting pressed onto vinyl these days, but little of it radiates like a nugget from the heyday of the long-playing record quite like this specimen, while still connecting as contemporary. Buyers will surely load these nine songs onto their devices, and they work well in that context. However, this one sounds best in the listening room. It’s out now through Sassafras Records.

When I first glimpsed the sleeve of MERCH’s 2012 LP This Betrayal Will Be Our End, I did a double take, for that album’s cover photo and the snapshot adorning the jacket for Undercurrent, the classic 1962 duo set from pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall, are one and the same. The gesture immediately registered as homage, but even as jazz fits into Joe Medina’s teeming bag of influences, soaking up the record drove home my assumption as off-target.

Before its usage by United Artists for the Evans/ Hall disc, Toni Frissell’s photograph, Weeki Wachee Spring, Florida was well-known, appearing in Harper’s Bazaar in ’47 and Sports Illustrated in ’55. For Undercurrent, the image is eerie but tranquil; when the sharp black & white is combined with Medina’s album title and songs, the mood becomes considerably more noir, adding a distinctively dark spin to what’s been categorized as a breakup record.

This Betrayal Will Be Our End isn’t MERCH’s debut, but even as nothing the outfit released prior appears to be easily obtainable, the album still strikes the ear as a major artistic stride, and as such, presented a difficult act to follow. But through the participation of the Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra, a Latin jazz band, opera singers, and a rack of psych, garage, and jazz players out of San Fran and L.A., Medina has pulled it off.

The new record’s cover is also illustrative, featuring a photo of the artist in profile, unfussily denoting that the boldness of its contents is ultimately attributable to one human focal point. This design choice enhances the “classic” aura, harkening back to an era when a pop auteur’s likeness was readily used as a selling point. But for all this, opener “Don’t Wait Too Long” makes abundantly clear that Amour Bohemian is a byproduct of the moment.

The song’s raucous flights of hard rock bombast intertwine with an assertive arrangement for strings, and Medina’s vocals move from upper-register soulfulness to deeper singer-songwriter-ish candor to assured pop-rock frontman swaggering, all without a snag. Structurally audacious and full of surprises (it feels like a spoiler to spell out the finest twist), the whole also profits from a palpable sense of control as it leads into the decidedly ELO-ish strings and sophisto guy-gal vocal tradeoff that’s “Artist & the Muse.”

Medina clearly loves his crooners, and a photo capturing him in a blue blazer holding a flaming rose in his clenched teeth could possibly trigger thoughts of retro caricature, but thankfully that doesn’t come to pass; if playful, the music here is ultimately quite serious, nowhere more so than in the lyrics, which are strong enough that printing them wasn’t a bad idea.

“Two Hearts” merges ’60s-style orchestral production-pop with Medina’s mildly Scott Walker-esque delivery, and the flourishes of Spanish horns and the burst of hard rock guitar help to secure the cut’s success. But perhaps the crucial aspect is a string arrangement that’s not just bright and limber but robust as it delivers some unexpected woody tone passages.

“Marriage” might initially saunter too brazenly into ’60s AOR gestures for my taste, but I also can’t deny that the musical execution, which includes choral swells, Hawaiian pedal steel, and low register reeds (I’m thinking bass clarinet) elevate matters far above pastiche. This scenario extends into the big-band-ish vocal pop landscape of “The Only Love I Understand,” though a large dose of fuzz guitar and a full-on wailing arena rock solo undercuts the sunshiny tendencies of “According to the Doctors” without coming off as a stylistic subversion.

With “Ten Quetzales,” the album dishes an extended highlight in the homestretch, reinforcing the knack for large-scaled arranging that’s likely to please fans of Nelson Riddle, but with naturally flowing eccentricities and again, modern flair, that continues to set matters apart. “The Wine Will Flow” reduces the sweep (if not the length) somewhat, though its lounge-tinged ambition eventually bursts into jazziness; “Pinewood & Roses” spotlights those opera singers in a tidier serving of cinematic imagery and guitar strum that ends the LP on a high note.

The contents might not bask upon a single high plateau throughout, but neither do they crater, and the strongest selections bookend the runtime. For all its grandness, the record isn’t strained, and neither does Medina seem creatively spent. This bodes well for future MERCH developments, but anyone interested in the possibilities of symphonic pop and classically-minded songwriting shouldn’t sleep on Amour Bohemia.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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