New collaboration can be a threat or a treat, conditions that certainly aren't mutually exclusive. When artists partner with new muses, they can gain perspective by understanding how their output looks through a different lens, and they can adjust their perspective by dislodging any lazy artifacts of business as usual. Familiar traits can move in dizzying new patterns. The flipside, of course, is that a group of artists either bring out the worst tendencies of one another or that even their best facets simply don't wed well. That is, what's worked in the past can become buried with distractions.
Living Is Easy is a new double collaboration between Jphono1—the solo project of John Harrison, veteran frontman of stormy psychedelic act North Elementary—and area graphic artist Regina McCoy and Atlanta musician Corey Pallon. In a 40-page paperback book, McCoy stitches bits of Harrison's elliptical lyrics into photos he's taken at home and on tour, using inlays and effects to web it all together. The accompanying nine-track disc forgoes Harrison's recently ornate rock-band arrangements for a muted and casual lo-fi sensibility, pop songs drifting over programmed beats, shaky keyboard sounds and rickety acoustic guitar.
The music successfully steers Harrison from his routine, allowing him to turn his songs into playgrounds more than workshops. During "Crossbones on Myself," a plain banjo line sings to itself above field recordings and a static glow. Harrison offers a simple song in his plain voice, occasional noise and carefree percussion adding dimension to his besotted quest for "earthly thrills." On tracks like "Walkman" and "The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow," the Elliott Smith genuflection of Harrison's singing and song structures are less offputting than the curios embedded therein are rewarding—the looming strings and hummable slide guitar snippet in the former, the gentle distortion and noisy zigs and zags of the latter. In North Elementary, Harrison has spent years tracing the indie rock lines that run from Wilco to Grandaddy, from The Flaming Lips to The Jesus and Mary Chain. Here, he uses the sharp sense of melody required in his main gig to plunder another chunk of indie-dom, particularly that of Sparklehorse and Drag City architects like Smog and Papa M. This collaboration feels like it was as good for the artist as it is for the listener.
The book is less rewarding, even if it makes for the better sales pitch than the cheaply replicated CD attached to its back cover. The charm of these tunes stems largely from their innocent sense of experimentation—that is, Harrison tried some new things, and they worked. But the book takes Harrison's casual snapshots—of a gas station, pets, his girlfriend, some instruments and a cache of great records—and tries to conjure some broader meaning through coincidence or craft. The first page is a photo that includes an "Open" sign, while Page 23 keys on a photo of a sign including, yes, that number. One piece inserts a small photo of a massive driving range into a larger, pixelated version of the same. On a green canvas of helicopters, planes and geese, lyrics are pasted like revelations. Really, it feels like liner notes trying too hard to match the blurred boundaries and twisted circuits of the music.
But that's collaboration—a series of wins and losses that have to be tried before they can be tallied.