His Oyster

by David Yearsley
Cornell University Professor of Music

Published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser

The first record I can remember playing was an ancient LP of the Russian father and son pair, David and Igor Oistrakh sawing their way through the Bach violin concertos. I’d play the first movement of the E Major concerto over and over again, then move into the double concerto. I conducted with a well-sharpened no. 2 pencil. When I was seven or eight I wanted to be a conductor.

For some reason I never really listened to much popular music. My first extended exposure to “Rock” — a name that, with the proliferation of genres and sub-types descended from Rock and Roll, now sounds quaintly sentimental — came when, at age 12 or so, I began spending summers picking berries at my grandmother’s farm north of Seattle. One kid or another would always bring a portable radio that would go non-stop the whole work day. I can’t even think about the summer of 1977 without hearing the Theme from the Rockford Files, a tune that must have played at least once an hour every day of the season, which, if true, means I heard this particular instrumental adventure over 500 times. It was around that time, too, that my sisters developed the custom of rollerskating around the basement to Barry Manilow’s Copa Cabana and the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever. Then in the 80s they went (equipped by my mother with earplugs) to the Seattle stops on the American twilight tours of those aged English bands: The Who, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones. My sisters bought their records and tapes and played them at home and in the car:

It’s a legal matter baby
Baby it’s no fun,
It’s a legal matter baby,
A legal matter from now on.

On to college: where most afternoons of my senior year I would return to find a Jamaican roommate dozing in a frayed armchair three feet in front of a 30-inch tv across which flashed futuristic cartoons. From the considerable tv speakers came not the sound track of the cartoons, but, through the apparatus’s simulcast capabilities, the local reggae station delivered at prodigious decibel levels. In this way did some of the significant musical movements of two decades pass me by. I suppose my relation to popular music was something like breathing second-hand smoke. Not to say I didn’t like it, I just never actively sought out those sounds.

All this by way of disclaimer for the following attempt at a review of “My Oyster,” the debut CD of the Bay Area recording artist, Cory Cullinan. Given my ignorance of pop music, what gives me the right, or, for that matter, the desire to undertake this task? As for the first, I have a PhD (in historical musicology, but that’s beside the point), and with these three letters tattooed to the back side of my name I am allowed, nay required, to blow hard on any and all subjects. As for the second, I must admit that I appear on one track of My Oyster, playing the organ on a rock psalm parody, entitled, “The Story Of Heaven.” Yes, Mr. Cullinan is a friend; but is there anything more patriotic, more dear to the traditions of American journalism, more exemplary of the First Amendment, then greasing the skids for one of your mates? I think not. Onward.

My Oyster” is an extraordinary creation, a work of boundless imagination, and, as the title of the CD suggests, near relentless optimism, inflected by a fine sense of irony. The generally buoyant tone of the CD is set with the opening track, “Crazy Old Man,” which begins with sampled sounds of the world awakening: birds twittering and a rooster crowing (can a crow rooster?), then a barnyard fiddle and a tambourine quickly followed by a surge of sound as an airplane blasts overhead — and we’re off into the world of Cory Cullinan. The following groove hooks us immediately and Cory sings “There was a seed / Became…” and suddenly there is silence, as if Cory were thinking of what he should create. Then, he decides, “…a tree.” The moment of decision takes one beat of silence, creating an unexpected measure of five beats. Although the CD is splendidly produced and mixed — quite an achievement given the array of forces involved across the spectrum of musical styles heard on the recording — there is always this delightful affection for the spontaneous; the finished product is highly polished, yet a sense of the composer/performer’s unmediated creativity is never effaced.

This additional beat of silence is just one small example of the kind of baroque intricacy that colors many of the songs on the CD. One encounters detours of meter, timbre, and style throughout “My Oyster,” and the first-time listener can never be sure what will follow. Of course there is a certain joy to knowing almost exactly how a piece of music is going to proceed from start to finish. The overwhelming majority of pop tunes give you the hook and then play themselves out without surprise. And it’s not just popular music that satisfies this desire for the expected. Vivaldi owed his success to a genius for enlivening the predictable.

The triumph of “My Oyster” is that it is packed with memorable songs that pull you in as pop songs, yet allow space for this baroque impulse. Thus “Without You” is a song predominantly in a funky MoTown 70s groove with a gospel section (with choir); yet these are displaced by a string-accompanied introduction and interludes, which are harmonically and melodically adventurous and in style far removed from the main body of the song, and when the main groove returns each time it is all the more satisfying. The album is enlivened and articulated by complex formal structures such as these, as well as a kind of elevated musical humor that operates on many levels, from the distorted quotes of “Waltz of the Sugar-Plum Faires” in “Take Some Time” (a day in the life of a hapless husband) to the satanic fugues played by the holy instrument, the organ, in “The Story Of Heaven.” Cory’s gift for musical irony and political comment are further showcased in “Never Shatter You,” where a text about mass culture and mass destruction is echoed by the flippant circus band accompaniment.

The CD traverses a vast terrain, through innumerable popular music genres and crosses into the realm of “classical music” with “Bright In Your Ways,” a beautiful a capella piece sung by a group called Die Oystersingers. My favorite among these riches is the haunting “Our Town” with its evocative string ostinato, woodwind scoring, and, to my ears, the finest singing on the CD. The CD’s lyrics are scattered with wonderful surreal images and inspired lines like this from”Crazy Old Man“:

I’ll live a life on VCR
Fast forward where the bad parts are
Multiple takes, minimal scars
Install a screen right inside my car

It is impossible not to admire and enjoy Cory’s innate gifts and his ability to put so much musical craftsmanship, flare and beauty both simple and complex onto a single CD.