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Jason Falkner Presents Author Unknown is one of the finest solo debut albums of all time. This month it’s one of three albums selected by Warner subsidiary Run Out Groove to be voted on for a possible vinyl edition. Whichever album garners the most votes wil receive a limited edition deluxe vinyl pressing, something I’ve been campaigning for with regards to this album for a long time. I’ll put the Run Out Groove link here in case you don’t make it all the way to the end of the post, but I hope you do!
Let’s backtrack a bit first.
Jason Falkner was born in California in 1968 and grew up listening to his parents’ Pink Floyd, CSN, Beatles, Zombies, Love, Procol Harum and Kinks LPs. He started playing drums on ice cream tubs at age 4 and took classical piano lessons at 6. He picked up the guitar as a teen and shortly after high-school graduation he joined alt psych-pop quartet The Three O'Clock after spotting an ad their drummer had placed in L.A. music mag The Recycler. He joined the band in time to make his recording debut on their 1988 album Vermillion, released on Prince's Paisley Park label. The record didn’t catch wind and the band broke up, but Jason got a foothold in the biz and made a fan out of Prince, which is no small thing. After a stint in Europe, Jason’s friend Roger Manning convinced him to move to San Francisco to join his new band, Jellyfish, which is where I got onboard with all things Falkner. Jellyfish’s debut album Bellybutton was unlike anything else I was listening to in 1990. It was psychedelic power pop with vocals harmonies that would make Brian Wilson smile, and an attention to songwriting detail that grabbed liberally from Queen, Cheap Trick, Big Star and Badfinger but also forged a way forward with a unique sound of its own.
Relationships in the band were tumultuous and Jason left after the Bellybutton tour, spending a couple of years playing sessions in Los Angeles. These put him in the orbit of Jon Brion who had played in Aimee Mann's band 'Til Tuesday and also contributed some guitar to Jellyfish’s second album Spilt Milk. Brion invited Falkner to an informal jam session with musicians Buddy Judge and Dan McCarroll, and The Grays were born. They quickly signed to Epic and recorded the masterpiece album Ro Sham Bo in 1994 (also ripe for vinyl reissue!), an album which let Jason flex his songwriting muscle in a manner that Jellyfish never would. However, perhaps like Jellyfish, The Grays were too many cooks in one kitchen and they broke up when the album failed to sell, despite critical acclaim.
Jason kept recording on a 4-track machine at home, intending to release an all-covers album which never happened but would eventually come out in Japan in 2001. In 1995 he connected with Eric Matthews, fresh from his debut album as one half of delightful orchestral indie-pop duo Cardinal. The two worked together on Matthews’ solo debut album It’s Heavy In Here for Sub Pop, a truly masterful record of orchestral pop. Meanwhile Jason signed a solo deal with Elektra records, licensing the song Miracle Medicine to Sub Pop as a one-off single (whose three phenomenal b-sides I would love to see on this potential re-issue). Presents Author Unknown is a one-man album in the truest sense, with Jason working alone in the studio, playing every instrument, laying down track after track, only calling in the assistance of a string section, and friend Alain Johannes of the band Eleven who recorded one guitar track. “I love building a song up from nothing and jumping from one instrument to another,” said Jason. “I’d been waiting my whole life to make (the album)....I was just totally on fire.”
Presents Author Unknown was launched on August 13th, 1996 and the first single was the gloriously lovelorn opening track I Live: “If I had you I could never ever ask for anything again as long as I live”.
The previously-mentioned Miracle Medicine is a frenetic ode to mental and physical instability, and Jason can rock out with the best of them, but he’s really just getting started. Don’t Show Me Heaven is one of the album’s slow-burn mid-paced highlights, all throbbing bass and Ringo-esque tom-heavy drums, building through a gorgeous two-minute coda at the end. Next up is, for me, the album’s emotional heartbeat, the stunning She Goes To Bed - a song so perfectly crafted that Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney or Paul Simon would run around their oversized living rooms in ecstasy if they came up with anything half as good. Stop reading for the next four minutes and give this gem your undivided. You’ll thank me.
It’s by no means a peak though, as Jason is still yet to unleash some of the finest singer/songwriter powerpop ever committed to tape: the yearning Nobody Knows, fanboy ode Follow Me, the harmony-laden Afraid Himself To Be, and the Kinks-esque I Go Astray. Honestly, every song on this album is a classic. Unsurprisingly it was a critical success but a commercial failure. An assortment of record company snafus dogged Jason throughout his five-year tenure with the label he dubbed “Neglektra”. The week he started recording Author Unknown, his A&R guy (also his biggest supporter at the label) was fired. Jason has said that by the time the album was ready for release “I think 80% of the label didn’t know that I was making a record for Elektra”. Despite his good looks, he was never given the green light to make a video for either of his Elektra albums. Nor would they pony up the cash for him to hire a backing band. They saw him play a solo showcase in New York and were so blown away they deemed the additional musicians unnecessary. He had wanted to leave Elektra after Author Unknown, but they convinced him to stay for a second album, the almost equally excellent Can You Still Feel? in 1999.
The entire experience put Jason off making records for labels, and while he produced two further albums of music, they both initially came out only in Japan, and only after much coaxing from boutique Tokyo label Noise McCartney Records. Instead, Jason busied himself as a sideman, playing regularly with Beck for the last two decades, and touring with French band Air for three years. He did a side project called TV Eyes with his former Jellyfish band-mate Roger Manning, he’s recorded two albums of lullaby-instrumental Beatles covers, and he’s worked with artists including Aimee Mann, Travis, Glen Campbell and even Paul McCartney, contributing some guitar to the Beatle’s 2005 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. He played guitar on the late great Emitt Rhodes’ 2016 swansong LP Rainbow Ends. He played on Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds album Who Built the Moon?, adding bass at night in L.A. for songs Noel had recorded that day, sending them back to producer David Holmes in time to mix into the track the next morning. I was watching the Oscars this time last year and when Elton John played a song from the Rocketman movie, I was unsurprised to see Jason side-stage, rocking out on his red Fender Jazzmaster. Those are the kind of gigs he lands these days.
Jason also works as a producer for hire, and has made records for a bunch of different artists. He recently produced and played on the excellent self-titled album by New York singer/songwriter John Brodeur AKA Bird Streets and he has produced two of my favourite Norwegian artists: Magnet’s The Tourniquet, and Thom Hell’s completely exquisite 2012 album Suddenly Past. I can barely pick just one track from it, but let’s go with opener Feeling’s Gone because it inhabits the perfect intersection of these two incredible musicians’ talents, and the vocal breakdown in the middle 8 is as perfect a moment of music as you’re going to experience this lifetime.
So, briefly back to this Run Out Groove business. It’s heartbreaking to pit three albums against each other, and I’m personally not a fan of the concept, which I find gimmicky. Warner have pre-negotiated rights to all three albums, so why not produce them all? It’s lopsided to pit smaller indie artists against more established acts. I started a facebook campaign last year when Owsley's seminal self-titled debut album was in the running on Run Out Groove but it didn't stand a chance against Bay Area metalcore band Machine Head with their debut album. So let’s take a glance at Jason’s competition. First up is David Lee Roth’s Spanish language version of his solo debut Eat 'Em And Smile, entitled Sonrisa Salvaje. This falls outside the usual Run Out Groove purview since it HAS been out on vinyl before, all over the Latin American market, and it even got a US edition, which can be picked up fairly inexpensively. I doubt even the most die-hard VH/DLR fans are salivating at the prospect of this reissue. His tougher competition comes from the Old 97’s, a busy quartet from Dallas who have recorded sixteen albums in the same amount of time that Jason has released four, (and frontman Rhet Miller has released nine on his own). More troubling still is their considerable presence on social media which can drive a campaign to get them the most votes. Jason’s social media presence is virtually non-existent. The imbalance is staggering. The issue for me is that Old 97’s have a rock-solid record deal with Dave Matthews’ New York imprint ATO Records, a label more than capable of reissuing their earlier albums on vinyl. Interestingly, prior to their ATO deal, Old 97’s had two of their earliest albums reissued on vinyl by superlative Los Angeles label Omnivore Recordings, the label behind a handful of albums I’ve already mentioned here…TV Eyes, Emitt Rhodes, Bird Streets and gorgeous vinyl reissues of both Jellyfish albums, to name just a few.
If Old 97’s win out at Run Out Groove, I can only hope that a label like Omnivore will step in to make a vinyl edition of Presents Author Unknown a reality. Fuck, I really want this record to happen. I spent all day writing this blog post! Author Unknown on vinyl. Mmmmmmm. If I had it, I could never ever ask for anything again as long as I live!