Music Review of Ferras by Ferras, June 2014
I’m thinking right now about Ferras, the first artist on Katy Perry’s new private label Metamorphosis Records. I want to talk about Ferras even though the big news today is actually in Brooklyn, rather than LA, with the junior-high heavy metal band “Unlocking the Truth” and its big contract with Sony’s indie spin-off, Cherry Party. We’ll get to them in another issue.
I want to talk about Ferras because, in the June 17 issue of Us Weekly, Perry described not only her thrill at having a private label but her thrill with Ferras, who is “a man with a message” and “an important artist.” On that same day, Metamorphosis released Ferras’ new EP, the self-titled Ferras, including “Speak in Tongues,” “No Good in Goodnight,” “Champagne,” “King of Sabotage,” and the duet with Perry, “Legends Never Die.”
Ferras was getting big before the Metamorphosis release, of course: he was Perry’s opening act. But his one previous release was almost seven years ago, Aliens & Rainbows, in 2008. The reason that Aliens & Rainbows is so great is, paradoxically, the reason that a lot of really great solo albums go largely unnoticed, and why solo singer-songwriters are a brave bunch. But, man, the leap from Aliens & Rainbows to Ferras is so astonishing that it puts this question front and center: what the hell is up with popular music? If it’s doomed, why is it so—popular?
Ferras in Aliens & Rainbows has a brilliant, often-unaccompanied piano, soulful and evocative in a way reminiscent of a performer a generation back, Jackson Browne, but also subtler and more melodically complex. It’s a starkly beautiful album. The fierce opening of the first song, “Liberation Day,” with the slight touch of synthesized drums, recalls the style of Ben Folds in Songs for Silverman except that the lyrical focus for Ferras is what it means when our dreams don’t come true, when we can’t work them out. Following this, the title song, “Aliens and Rainbows,” is eerily similar to Leona Lewis’ “Better in Time,” which came out the same year (and it would be interesting to know if one influenced the other or they both had that weird thing that happens to artists in certain times when they hit upon more or less the same sound without knowing it). But that doesn’t make “Aliens and Rainbows” any less beautiful, and if course Ferras is working on a completely different idea lyrically—where Lewis is telling us she’s going to be OK, Ferras is wondering what it means to realize that, whatever “human” is, you just can’t grasp it. Lewis is beautifully unrealistic; Ferras is tragic and brilliant. There’s not a trace of studio over-production on this album. It cuts like a knife because the knife is all that’s there.
Enter Metamorphosis Records. “Everything’s different,” sings Ferras in the opening single, “Speak in Tongues.” “Something’s gone missing.’” And he’s not kidding. From the opening measure of every song on the EP, every space is full of sound. This is true synthetic music of the kind Katy Perry trademarked. You can picture the score for each song running anywhere from four to ten staves vertically for the melody and nine different simultaneous synthetic effects, including synthesized voices. And, yeah, you can’t really take the genius away from a brilliant songwriter, so the lyrics here are interesting. But whatever that soulful piano dominating Aliens & Rainbows was, it has been left out in the rain. And the numbers are interesting. On Spotify, the top songs from Aliens & Rainbows—“Hollywood’s Not America,” “Rush,” and “Take My Lips”—have roughly 700,000, 650,000, and 300,000 listens, respectively. Of the songs from Ferras, only two show up—“Legends Never Die” and “Speak in Tongues”—and they together barely show 43,000 listens.
The crazy killer Phil Specter invented the “Wall of Sound” in the early 1960’s, and you could argue that Katy Perry has perfected the new generation of it, incorporating far more sophisticated synthesizers and hip-hop into something that gets her most popular songs nearly 200 million listens. She has her ear to the track and the light at the end of the tunnel is indeed her own oncoming train. But if Ferras wants to remain Ferras, he needs to return to recording his roots. His dream came true. He’s backed now financially to the hilt. But if Katy Perry’s train hits him, he’s not going to come out alive. Toward the beginning of all this I wondered aloud why popular music was so popular when it’s so enormously contrived—like perpetual ADHD—and that actually may be the answer to the question right there. There is so much to hear, all the time! Ecstasy! Coke! Without the hassle of jail time and so on! But losing Ferras to his latest sound would be a true loss for someone as gifted and as fortunate to have made Aliens & Rainbows.
Tom Simmons is an associate professor of English at the University of Iowa. His seven books are all still available on amazon under the name “Thomas Simmons,” although he hasn’t read any of them since 2012. A singer-songwriter, he plays twice a month at one of his two favorite venues, The Mill in Iowa City (the other favorite venue, The Hideout in Chicago, hasn’t actually invited him yet).