The debut release from Anthony Lamarr was easily one of the more ambitious releases of 2010. At twenty-one songs and seventy-seven minutes, it’s an opus, especially for a debut. Lamarr’s background and education is in theater and here he presents these works in three “acts”. The album opens with a simulation of being in a theater with polite applause and a voice-over welcome urging the “audience” to sit back, relax and enjoy the show. It closes in similar fashion although it’s a long show – it’s just intermission; foresight into Lamarr’s 2011 release, Intermission: The Learning Never Stops, which carries on the theme.
Opening Night is biographical in nature; a playlist from Lamarr’s personal experiences. The arc of the story is not entirely clear but overall it begins with a sorrow that is overriding and ends with the optimism that he can indeed overcome. Lamarr attempts to expand his experiences from personal to universal and on this note he largely succeeds. The album sways from soul-searching reflections to outright worship songs, especially in the third “act”. The album probably could have done without some of the latter tracks, condensing it down to a more digestible length.
The ambition of the project is reflected in the sheer number of people involved: a core band that features Scott Lamps (bass, guitars, vocals, keyboards, arrangement, engineering and production), Ida Jo (violin, vocals), Austin Douse (drums), Michael “Mouse” Adams, Jr. (harmonica) and a horn section including Peter Ross on sax, Charley Wagner on trumpet and Sean Dray on tuba. There are copious special guests with songs tailor-made for them, choirs and even preachers.
“On and On” establishes the main groove of the record; a funky track that seeps Motown influences with ample use of horns. The guitars are notable here, a staccato pattern underlies the verses while crunching power chords drive the choruses. “Deep Afterthought” and “Afterthought” dial up the soul music, the former featuring a poem spoken by Rob Dz. Lamarr’s vocals soar bringing Luther Vandross to mind. A jazzy turnaround after the choruses is very effective as is the the song’s final refrain. Lamarr performed this pair at the 2011 Madison Area Music Awards, bringing in a troupe of dancers and choreographing the entire performance with impressive theatrical flair.
“Need to Change” is another standout, featuring Lucas Cates and blazing harmonica from Adams. It’s a more typical of a rock song with a familiar descending chord progression. The coda is a freakout and one of the more brilliant production moments on the album. “Why Go” is another with Ida Jo and Aaron Williams who turns in an outstanding and emotional guitar solo. “Doo Wah” lets Lamps take over the vocals and the textured, layered backups are a nice touch.
Other appearances include Lyndsay Evans (Sexy Ester and the Pretty Mama Sisters) who adds soulful vocals to “Choices,” J’Dante who brings a hip-hop section to “Better Than Me,” Mike Droho (Compass Rose) who sings on “The Place to Be” and Danielle Brittany who sings on a sultry lounge-jazz track appropriately titled “Jazzy Song.”
Lamarr’s alias The Soundshaker makes a brief appearance, showcasing his astounding ability to use his voice to reproduce complex beats, a technique known as beat-boxing.
The fact that a project like this flew so low on the radar while another of Lamarr’s outings – a video for the Wisconsin Badgers’ Rose Bowl appearance in January 2011 entitled “We’re Smelling Roses” practically went viral – is typical of the uphill battle musical artists face in this city. It’s often said that in Madison football, bratwurst or terrible illnesses will draw attention. Works of art…? Not so much.