Thursday, December 22, 2011

"One Last Wish" by John Batdorf

"The new phone books are here!". I have always remembered this innocent expression of exuberance by Steve Martin's character in "The Jerk" and that's exactly my feeling with the arrival of the latest CD by John Batdorf, "One Last Wish". It reminds me of my youth, being maybe 12 or so, and oh so anxiously awaiting the latest release by The Beatles or the The Stones. The anticipation was heightened by my unshakable conviction that, not only would these albums not possibly disappoint, but that they'd be different than anything I've heard before and somehow IMPORTANT. That importance, seemingly laughable to my folks at the time, has certainly been proven with time and what once seemed like an oxymoron, "important pop music", is now a very meaningful expression. "One Last Wish" is John Batdorf's latest offering of important pop music!!

Okay, now I know at least a few of you are thinking, "Come on, Peter, I know you're enthusiastic about music, and this Batdorf guy's name is vaguely familiar, but to mention this guy in the same breath as The Beatles????" A logical response and I'm the first to admit there will NEVER again be acts like those legends, mainly due to changes in the times and in the music business. That being said, I have been a fan of John's since his days in Batdorf and Rodney, fully four decades ago, and he has been writing and recording "important pop music" ever since, with a decade or so break when he was employed writing and scoring some very successful TV series. A great deal of his work has already stood up to the test of time and, in my view, his work just keeps getting better.

But my purpose here is not a testimonial, but instead a brief overview of a wonderful new CD. It is late enough in the year to state definitively, "One Last Wish" by John Batdorf is the "Album of the Year" in independent music for 2011, a year that has seen some great new releases! It's a collection of twelve meticulously crafted songs that run the gamut of happy and sad, uptempo and reflective and all points in between. Many of the songs in some manner cover some new ground for John, in ways I will attempt to describe. But if John, along with his long-time co writer Michael McLean, had one stand-out feature to his writing (he actually has many!) it would be his remarkable ear for melody and his extraordinary gift for devising melodies that are at once totally unique, but with a feeling of timeless familiarity. All of these songs are testament to that melodic talent. As for stylistic departures, I have come to believe these are due to a couple of changes in the way John wrote many of these tunes, as opposed to his previous work. Some of the differences could come from a forced hiatus from performing due to vocal issues (since rectified, I'm glad to say!) that let John write many of these songs in a more condensed time frame than usual. Its difficult to assess how that effected these songs, but the other difference in how many of these songs were written I think is more telling. Last year John got a new Martin Baritone acoustic guitar (I want one!) which is pitched substantially lower than a standard guitar. Many of these songs were first conceived and written on that instrument, and I'm certain that it has brought out new melodies and harmonies, just as a function of how the notes are laid out on that new instrument.

"One Last Wish" as a whole, is John's most consistent album start to finish. While there have been no "bad" or "throwaway" songs on John's previous CDs, there have always been a song or two or three per album that have stood out greatly as the cream of the album. After listening to this group of songs dozens of times, my favorites change day to day. Every song stands out in some way, there is absolutely no "filler" material there. And as considerable as John's talents are as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, one of his greatest skills has become his mastery of the recording process. The production on this CD is note perfect, down to the last handclap and tambourine shake. With the revolution in digital recording, EVERYONE records themselves and self-produces these days, but almost none of them will sound as good as this. Trust me, I have personally spent a ton of money on guitars, only to ultimately learn it's not the tool, it's the hands of the artist using it that creates great art. John has also hired some of the best professional musicians and vocalists around to help him on the CD, cutting no corners on the road to artistic triumph.

I could go on and on in detail about each song on the album, but I realize that becomes "look how smart I am" and I'd rather not go there. But I can't resist at least brief reflection on each song.

"Don't Give Up On Dreams" is in many ways a quintessential John Batdorf song, full of contradictions musically and lyrically, but ultimately totally logical in both regards. This a perfect example of music and lyrics working in tandem and reinforcing each other, a seemingly simple tune that reveals more and more depth the more it is examined, a finely crafted device that does its job with beauty and grace.

"Real Life" follows in a long tradition of pop music and film being tied together. The lyrics are a poignant reminder that reality rarely gives us the "happy endings" that films seem to promise us,

"I can't control in real life the way the story goes, Cause in real life sometimes the girl says no"

A wonderful lyric in one of the best AND most hooky choruses John has ever written, this sounds ready for a mainstream radio breakthrough!

"Mama's Comin' Home Tonight" is somewhat of a change for John, an uptempo bluegrass-gospel rave-up that makes you want to stomp your feet and features great background vocals by Dan Navarro, a singer/songwriter legend here in SoCal.

"Heaven Help Me" this time a major departure, a full-blown gospel hymn that almost has you waiting for the choir, but background vocals again by Dan Navarro along with Bill Batstone, fill the bill nicely! This one I know we owe to that new baritone guitar that it was written on. It is the first John Batdorf song I have heard that sounded like it might have been written by someone else, and to me, its an adventurous step that only adds to John's songwriting chops.

"Life Is Good" Wow, I could go on and on about this one, a small musical miracle of a tune! Funny thing is, on first listening I thought "nice little song, but incessantly cheery and sing-songy, I will tire of it quickly!" I couldn't have been more wrong! The melody went around my head for days after one listening! This is one of those songs that sounds like you've heard it a thousand times and also sounds different from anything you've EVER heard and if I could figure out how John did that, well I wouldn't be here talking, I'd be out writing my own miraculous songs. Wonderfully playful lyrics delivered with some really clever rhyme schemes just make this song Fun with a capital F. And how great is a "serious" songwriter who doesn't take himself TOO seriously?? Somebody in the TV world should scoop up this song as a perfect theme song for a sit-com! I have drunk the kool-aid and I will NEVER tire of this song because, you know what? Life IS good!

"I Feel Loved" This one is pure John Batdorf! A hauntingly beautiful love ballad with angelic background vocals by Arlene and Bill Kole, this is another one ready for some mainstream airplay.

"Can You Hear Me" Another stunner that's a real different song for John, this is nothing if not a power ballad that could have been written by the aforementioned Dan Navarro, who has penned several major hits for others. This sounds to me like a potential Top 40 type hit!

"Forgotten" Every album needs a change-of-pace song and the quiet, reflective and spare arrangement of this little,wistful, tender teardrop of a song fills the bill in lovely fashion.

"If You Could See Me Now" Many of John's songs are stories, written in character. I don't know for sure, but this one sure feels like John singing from his heart, a personal inquiry into what one's life has meant and how it would be viewed by those who meant the most to us. If I'm wrong then he sure sells the idea with his heart-felt vocal melodies.

"You Just Left Me" A song that could only come from John Batdorf and his songwriting partner Michael McLean. It has all the earmarks, the rhythmic acoustic guitar underpinning implying the melody of John's soaring vocals, and an ironic lyrical twist at the end. On a lesser album, this would be the highlight song, here its just another killer tune.

"One Last Wish" There's a reason this is the CDs title track, for sure, but again its a very different sound for John. This one has to be the most straight-forward rock song John has ever made, with a driving ride-out ending. Its also one in a long line of "home" songs that John has written, that theme not surprising from a guy who left his midwest roots for fame and fortune in the music biz in California as a teenager. This is another song that could play on mainstream radio. It also has the feel of closing off the album, that "taking it home" feeling only making the next astounding song stick out even more.

"Revolution" Okay, I dare to say it! This is an "Important" song. It was written as a response to the Arab Spring uprising and has achieved new resonance with the Occupy movement around the world. But this is no call to arms, much to the contrary, it's a prayer for peaceful change.

Revolution by John Batdorf/Michael McLean

Heard the news ...yesterday... Revolution is on it's way
There's a nation that's stirred..... millions of voices are finally heard
Will it go where it's meant to go?
Will it be what it's meant to be?
Will that great uprisin' on the far horizon
Do it peacefully? All the world will see

Let it rain, let it those voices echo mine
Where they stand... is where they'll fall
And they are willing to risk it all
May they change what they need to change
May they say what they have to say
At that great uprisin' on the far horizon
Going on today... May the world pray
May they find their way
To that brave new day

What an inspired masterpiece of songwriting and recording this song is, serene yet passionate, drifting yet insistent, spare yet detailed. This is a song like John Batdorf himself, a timeless classic that will be around inspiring people for a very long time! There is a wonderful video for this song, put together by a talented videographer named Ron Sarfaty, and I will include a link to it below, please watch it and listen to this amazing song, because the words elude me to describe it adequately!

I often get excited about new music and I'm known to go on and on about just about anything, but with this new John Batdorf CD "One Last Wish", its a whole different case. This incredible collection of humble pop songs has fully risen to and even exceeded my admittedly high expectations, has made me fondly remember my younger days and has me upbeat and optimistic about the future! That's a lot to get from a dozen songs, a sure sign of Important music and a sure sign that, as John sings in "Life Is Good", "Today life got a little better"!

Here's a link to John Batdorf's website:

and a link to the "Revolution" video: