News Column

Liner notes: Composer Chris Schlarb declares his independence on latest LP

July 10, 2013

YellowBrix

July 10--At a time when the CD's pre-digital age of prominence has been conveniently, if not tragically, dethroned by downloadable files on iTunes and streaming services like Spotify, it's rare to see an artist concerning him or herself with the plight of the once coveted neighborhood record store.

But Southern California-based producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Schlarb -- who'll be in town for a show to celebrate the release of his latest LP, "Psychic Temple II," at Speakertree Records this Tuesday -- still has a soft spot for the now antiquated ways of the music industry.

"You couldn't always just type a musician's name in on Google and find out all this information," Schlarb said by phone last week from his home in Long Beach. "All you had was the album and the liner notes, you know? It's interesting how people will pay $4 for a cup of coffee from Starbucks, but they won't pay $1 for a song that they'll listen to for the rest of their lives. So it's sort of poetic justice that we're playing at a record store."

Unlike the threatened independent bookstore, with its tattered rugs, dusty shelves and shedding cats, indie record stores in danger of disappearing don't inspire much hand-wringing, perhaps because they are not as celebrated in popular imagination as the quaint bookshop. (Record geeks can only claim "High Fidelity," the book and movie, as a nostalgic touchstone.)

Still, the passing of such places would be mourned.

So it's with an almost patriotic zeal and duty that musicians like Schlarb, who operate under the mainstream radar and outside the watchful eye of the major label juggernauts, continue to champion the previously in-demand clubhouse for teenagers -- a beloved hangout where a small minority still go to escape their parents, burn a few allowance bucks and absorb the latest trends in fashion as well as music.

"I think a lot of people are coming back to that experience or coming to it for the first time," Schlarb said. "Vinyl sales are up, which is nice to see. I just bought my son a record player for his 12th birthday. You can't go wrong with that."

There's a sense in which he carries that particular ethos over onto "Psychic Temple II," the sequel to his 2010 masterfully restrained exercise of ambient-jazz fittingly titled "Psychic Temple."

Although it's no less exploratory, the album attempts to reach beyond the long-form arrangements of its predecessor by focusing more soundly on Schlarb's ability to craft a densely conceptual collection of tracks.

After assembling a diverse bevy of collaborators who he's known or admired, including singer/songwriter Aaron Roche, death metal pioneer Paul Masvidal of the band Cynic and keyboardist Ikey Owens of the progressive rock group Mars Volta, Schlarb used the project as a means for allowing his imagination and meticulous nature to run wild.

"I'm totally obsessive," he said. "If I wasn't recording something, then I was mixing something. If I wasn't mixing something, I was arranging something. Just like you punch a clock and go to work man, I was punching a clock and working on that album like every day for a little over a year."

The opening cut, "Seventh House," featuring the coiling vocals of Sarah Negahdari, who recently served as touring bassist for alt-rockers Silversun Pickups, is a slow-burner of eerie emotion that packs quite a punch in just three minutes.

Then there's the instrumental drifters "The Starry King Hears Laughter" and "She Is the Golden World," two songs that simultaneously pay homage to poet William Blake and jazz legend Bill Evans. Schlarb admits the two are mirror reflections of each other and capture his desire to achieve a cohesiveness found when an artist isn't afraid to honestly evaluate his or her own work.

"I'm a really harsh critic," he said. "I'll listen to something, and then I'll start to take it apart. But I hold myself to that same standard, because I'm trying to challenge myself and fill a void. And if I'm not doing something that's interesting or new or exciting to me, why add to all the noise?"

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(c)2013 The News & Advance (Lynchburg, Va.)

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