may 2008

Marxist, Populist or What?

By David McGee


Phil Vassar
Universal South

Five cuts into his intriguing new album, Phil Vassar offers the title song. Whenever it was written, it couldn’t be more appropriate for a moment in time when 70 percent of Americans are telling pollsters our Republic is headed in the wrong direction. Anger is a seldom-explored theme in Vassar’s immaculately crafted tunes, but there is enough anger to go around on this long player. The churchy piano and velvety background vocals rising up from a thunderous arrangement in “Prayer Of A Common Man” only add to the sense of things gone awry as enumerated in the lyrics—from diminishing paychecks to foreclosed homes—before he cries out, “I’m not looking for charity/I just want some clarity/I’ve got people counting on me/And I’m up against the wall…” as the music settles into a gospel-tinged appeal for Divine intervention.

But you don’t have wait for the fifth song before you feel the heat. A modest, tinkling piano kicks off the album opener, “This Is My Life,” before a storm of screaming violins upends the calm and Vassar enters declaiming against “fat cats just getting fatter,” inveighing against policies that “stick it to the middle class,” and demanding a fair shake. Some Beatles-ish woodwinds in the background might divert attention from the next arresting lyric, when Vassar seems to suggest it’s time to tear down the system completely and start over, “spread all that wealth around.” Marxist or populist, Phil Vassar’s got a bone to pick with the establishment, irrespective of party lines (“Republican or Democrat/I don’t give a damn about that”). Then there’s the decidedly ’70-ish pop-rock cum ‘60s psychedelia of “The World Is a Mess,” in which he tries to surmount the indignities of the daily grind by focusing on a night alone with his paramour, only to keep returning to the deplorable state of affairs around him (a rephrasing of “American Pie”’s “bye-bye, Miss American Pie” into “bye-bye, life goes by” sounds positively sinister in this context) as he dances in the shadow of the Apocalypse.

On the other hand he looks back fondly, and in a pronounced Springsteen kind of way (complete with Roy Bittan-trademarked piano atmospherics), in “My Chevrolet,” to glory days of cruising, “young, innocent and guilty as sin,” in his ’64 Chevrolet, a majestic, dense, rocking reminiscence as perfect for the summer highway as is his classic, career launching “Carlene” single. In the country-inflected rock of “Love Is a Beautiful Thing,” he offers an enthusiastic appraisal of the joys of new love (and in the chorus even appropriates the multi-syllabic phrasing of the word “love” from Kenny Loggins’s “Danny’s Song”). And in the touching “Let Me Love You Tonight,” he sends up a soulful plea for one last night to make it right with his lover, in a lush, striking arrangement rich in piano, ascending strings and evocative gut-string guitar punctuation. For good measure, “Baby Rocks” grinds it out with a familiar, jittery rhythm and “woo-hoo” background chats from a “Sympathy for the Devil” chorus as Vassar deliriously, salaciously catalogues the many enticing attributes of his gal who “rocks like the Rolling Stones.”

So in case anyone worries that Phil might have gone all topical on us, take note of these ample moments of engaging balladry and boisterous, good-time celebrations of being alive. “It’s a crazy life/it keeps you on your toes,” he muses philosophically at the end of the album, in “Crazy Life,” a piano-based, surging ballad reflecting on the path he’s traveled through the years, the trials, the friendships gained and lost, the uncertainty of each new day and the going-at-it that keeps things interesting through the hills and valleys of experience. Hope floats, in any system.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024