It seems like you can scarcely stroll down the street these days without tripping over a surplus of singer-songwriters who worship at the altars of Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson, et al, turning out homages to ’60s L.A. art-pop every time you blink. But it wasn’t always thus. When British singer-songwriter John Cunningham released Homeless House back in 1998, stately tempos, ornate baroque-pop production, and elegant melodic arcs were considerably fewer and farther between. Everyone was too busy either trying to be the next Tortoise or the second Squarepusher. With the time appreciably riper for Cunningham’s kind of music, Ashmont Records has reissued Homeless House, packaged as a twofer with its follow-up, Happy-Go-Unlucky, under the utilitarian title 1998-2002.
Cunningham’s previous, now rare-as-hen’s-teeth recordings had been rather less ’60s-indebted, and Homeless House still bears a few trace elements of his earlier excursions. He experiments with guitar sounds a bit more here and there, and there’s a little more emphasis on tones and textures for their own sake. Of course, there are still plenty of Beatlesque moments, but there’s an additional touch thrown in that adds a twist, as on “Quiet and Slow Time,” where the early-’70s Lennonisms are mated with a bit of a Robert Wyatt feel.
The album as a whole has a dreamier vibe than Happy-Go-Unlucky. The latter album tilts the balance more definitively toward the ’60s orchestral-pop sounds that have obviously been a key element of Cunningham’s musical makeup all along. While his stock in trade here is still gentle balladry, Cunningham seems to be putting more of himself into the tracks even as he draws upon psych-pop influences that hark back to everything from Ray Davies’ harpsichords-and-ruffled-shirts phase to the early-’80s retro-DayGlo sounds of XTC’s Dukes of Stratosphear alter ego.
What sets Cunningham apart from so many other contemporary torch-bearers of the baroque-pop approach, though, is the fact that his songs don’t merely inspire appreciation for how well he can ape a 40-year-old style. They stand tall on their own terms, and they would have sounded just as striking back in the Age of Aquarius as they did during this collection’s titular time period, not to mention how well they hold up today.