Some 15 years after putting out his first albums of solo song material, Bob Wiseman is still an appealing bundle of contradictions. Irritating one moment and insightful the next, Wiseman comes across as excessively uptight about coming off as casual, a man with a lot to say but no compulsion to get it all off his chest too quickly. Does an entire decade separate It's True from the previous Wiseman collection? During that time period a new generation of performers in something of a similar style to Wiseman has attracted attention with corny labels such as "anti-folk."
The idea — or at least it is some pundit's concept of an idea — is that anti-folk performers are deconstructionists, picking apart the relatively simple seams of traditional folk as if trying to convert an entire wardrobe into a rag heap, the kind of discarded cloth one might wipe up a spill with.
Comparing a performance of Bob Wiseman's "My Cousin Dave" with a folkie doing "My Cousin Beulah" is the type of ridiculous contrast out of which labels such as anti-folk garner currency. There may be legitimacy in the discussion of deconstruction but it is a traditional approach, not something new. Wiseman might actually conceive a song about cleaning up a mess with a rag but so might Cousin Emmy. No subject has ever been off limits for a folk song; isn't that the whole point?
The structure of some of Wiseman's performances, a sort of loose, suspended flow with accompaniment that sounds like a partially improvised chord progression, has a similarities with performances in both opera and Islamic music. One difference with these latter performances, at least for most English-speaking listeners, is they don't really understand what is being said in the text, whereas with Wiseman they will and may not want to. Still, the appeal mentioned in the opening of this review is based on the fact that in a song such as "What Once Was Wild," this performer will evoke a sympathetic response from just about any listener, having focused in on feelings most everyone has and having found a way to express them in a manner both naturalistic and artistic. Scanning the lyrics of the songs, wisely provided in an insert to a brilliantly conceived bit of cardboard packaging, the text comes across more like diary entries than lines meant to be scanned, rhymed and crooned.
Wiseman's challenge is turn around and deliver these words in his preferred mode, hovering somewhere between his personal vision of what a radio hit by him would sound like and what Mojo Nixon once described as "full-out weirdness." His singing style is a major part of this: Never have so many wrong notes sounded so wrong, the sheer number and limber movement among them not a detail that an unhappy listener might want to be concerned with, but a balm to those who have more to fear from the right notes, which Wiseman also has a habit of hitting.
Although he can pop the odd guitar lick with zing, the instrumental sound that really livens up his material occurs when he brings in keyboards. "Queen of Sheba" is the rare Wiseman song that would have come across brilliantly if delivered more simply, yet he bravely chooses to put the material in the context of a complicated, dizzy arrangement full of echoing vocal effects and rippling pianos. "Born to Love You" also features a marvelous mix of keyboard sounds.
Other sections of the program would be difficult to listen to more than once. The previously mentioned "My Cousin Dave," the opening track, is not an example of putting one's best foot forward, although it does manage to set the tone and sound involved with Wiseman's manner of delivery. An open letter to pop CPO David Geffen, it clumsily touches on various issues before wounding itself with an appeal for an American record deal. Others have interpreted the moment as an example of Wiseman's grand ability to make fun of himself. Whatever it is, it seems a waste that it hogs a prominent spot in such a short program of new material from this artist. The label that released this CD is identified as "Blocksblocksblocks" based on its web address: the actual name of the label is a drawing of three