Check out the cover story and interview with Dan Wallace in
the latest issue of Dig This Real Magazine at www.digthisreal.com
REVIEWS of CULTURE OF SELF:
Review by Michael Mee for Americana UK (americana-uk.com), October 2007:
Put simply, Culture Of Self is about daring to be different, and the magic that comes when you do. Even if it were only half as good as it is, it should be treasured for its originality alone.
Quite rightly the spectre of Frank Zappa is summoned because, like Zappa, Dan Wallace doesn’t see things in quite the same way as we mere mortals. Culture Of Self is also a glorious reminder of a golden age when more care was put into the ‘building’ of an album as the marketing of it.
No doubt the non-linear approach that Wallace has taken will infuriate as many as it delights, anything as theatrical and surreal as this is bound to divide opinion. In music only the bland unites and this is anything but bland.
It will help if you let your mind run as free as Dan Wallace’s obviously did, Culture of Self is a kaleidoscope of sounds, written in big bold colours, best just to run with it. However, a lack of any true reference point makes it almost impossible to sum up, it is what it is, rock music at its surreal, imaginative best.
In the end it doesn’t matter what you call Culture Of Self, it’s the ideas that it challenges and stimulates that are important. Maybe the key lies in surrendering yourself to the wonderland created by the fevered brow of Dan Wallace, an artist in its truest sense.
Review by Bert Saraco for The Phantom Tollbooth (www.tollbooth.org)(August 27, 2007):
There’s a bottom line to good music.
When you strip away the production tricks, the synthesizers, the studio embellishments, the samples, and the cornucopia of digital manipulations, the bottom line is this: is there a song there? Is there a human being reaching through the fire-wall of commercial sameness, plucking something original from the creative side, and taking the chance that somewhere the music will resonate in the soul of a listener? We usually call it ‘stepping outside the box,’ and that’s what Dan Wallace does on his new release, Culture of Self.
It’s not so much that Wallace has broken new musical territory, but he’s created a project using sounds as diverse as acoustic jazz, rock, pop, and even operetta to produce fresh sounding, human music. The pop sounds are refreshingly simple and the rock has a bold cutting edge to it, but underneath it all is a complexity of thought and structure that isn’t obvious until you’re well into the project. This is music by an artist whose sound owes as much to Sufjan Stevens and Todd Rundgren as it does to his unlikely pair of stated major influences: Dmitri Shostakovich and Frank Zappa. This is not your typical pop album…
Opening and closing the CD are two instrumental pieces: the first, “Counting,” is a short, atmospheric musical footbridge into the unexplored aural territory ahead, and the closing track, “Counting Backwards,” is an ambitious piece of orchestrated music, featuring Wallace on guitar, organ and piano, strings played by Emanuel Ban (violin and viola), Grace Hong on Oboe, and George Lawler on drums. The total effect, complex enough to incorporate surprising musical episodes within its structure, remains warmly human and intimate, much like the loosely-assembled group work of the afore-mentioned Sufjan Stevens. The piece is small and big at the same time, melancholy and exciting, tag-teaming woodwinds and strings against a rock and roll band – and it all works.
Between the opening and closing tracks you’ll find the basics of a really good pop/rock album. Wallace’s vocals are fragile-sounding (just enough) but versatile, and show surprising range, as in the first vocal track, “The Heap” – a song that typifies the surprising aspects of Wallace’s pop work, being what I’d call “eclectic psycho-pop” with an edge. The songs are catchy, with some real hooks, and often feature unexpected explosions of rock, and even jazz, sensibilities (the instrumental portion of this song is a good example of how Wallace can tear a good guitar solo right through your speakers). The fourth track of this surprising CD features Wallace accompanying an unexpected female vocalist, Robin Morgan (offering a surprisingly ‘straight’ soprano performance), on “I Want to Be” - a song that would not sound out of place as a minor number in Les Miserables, if not for the frantic piano section in the middle. “Perfect Weather For a Superhero” and “The Low Road” return to a more conventional pop format, with Wallace showing considerable skills as a lead and background-harmony vocalist – the songs also feature a strong rock style to give the pop aspects some bite, and Wallace’s excellent work on the acoustic, as well as the electric, guitar.
“Heap Variation” is another instrumental, placed almost in the center of the project, and features, (mostly) two guitars interweaving, fugue-like, through an intricate melody. The piece lasts just under a minute, and recalls the short instrumental bits that Frank Zappa inserted into his classic Uncle Meat album - It’s a stunning 56 seconds full of precise, rapid guitar interplay and unusual melody. Three tracks later, “Insomnia,” with its loose structure, has unexpected moments that punctuate the mood, like the blast of rock in the middle, and the sophisticated band passages at the end. Perhaps the most surprising track (for me) is the remaining instrumental, “Bound to be Free,” which sounds like a song Django Reinhardt would have written for Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. This might be the most surprising, impressive minute and forty seconds on the entire album.
Wallace’s lyrics are, like his music, somewhat enigmatic and puzzling, if you look too closely. Like an abstract painting, or poetry, shadows of meaning from the lyrics emerge unexpectedly, when you’re not looking for them. In “The Heap,” Wallace writes: ‘…sometimes we have to go where everyone is, or at least where everyone’s been…’Lucky for us, on Culture of Self, Dan Wallace has gone where most artists haven’t been. He’s found that bottom line: there are real songs here.
Review by Ant Standring for Glasswerk.co.uk (August 16, 2007):
Last year saw the release of Dan Wallace’s cleverly crafted debut LP ‘Neon & Gold’ which was met by a love it or hate it audience. He’s back with his more profound and sometimes tumultuous follow up ‘Culture of Self’, an LP we at Glasswerk have been looking forward to hearing and to ‘picking the bones out of’ as it were!
Presented in a lavish looking and lyric coated tri-fold sleeve that depicts anything from crystal ball snow shakers to artery and vein-like tree branches, this album is as much of a quandary on the outer as it is within. And that’s no surprise considering DW boasts of influences that range from Shostakovich to Zappa! Let’s get on with it then, I can’t wait any more!
Opening the LP with what I feel is a cunningly albeit brief, preparatory instrumental track, DW hints at what is to intermittently follow, adjusting the listeners expectations as he surrenders to his susceptibility of classical composure, a side that is frequently and refreshingly revisited throughout. DWs vocal range and fluidity are matched effortlessly, only by his slinky instrumentation, mirroring a latter day Radiohead here and a sorely missed (on my part at least) Garlic there.
Constantly shifting from unpredictable arrangements and unexpected carnival-esque tangents, to barely recognisable moments echoing a ‘Dry’ era PJ Harvey, a Peeping Tom demeanour and certain Gomez ditties to more blatant sources of inspiration (surely), notably, anything from typical Kurt Weill, The Doors ‘Spanish Caravan and Beck's ‘Tropicalia’.
This LP epitomises opulence in the writing and recording process of an album. Revisiting tracks and tweaking the construct, meddling with the melody and challenging any obvious approach to a track and its righteous path, DW and his music are as smart and imaginative as you like! So many elements are wondrous; the dually layered vocals, the pleasantly invasive strings and the coy yet immediate delivery, all entwined with an overall subtle complexity that adds extra magic to this LP.
And I’m not done yet!! Did I mention how awesome the lyrics are? They really shine for me. Thankfully and I feel necessarily included in the packaging for close inspection, the quirks that make up seven eighths of DWs genius can all be found within for every fellow wordsmith out there to relish. So if he’s so good, why haven’t we heard of him you might well ask! What can I say, I’m not the musical taste police am I, maybe the world just isn’t prepared for DW yet! But I implore you to investigate because every moment that goes by without recognition of this LP and the talent that created it, is a criminal moment. OOHHH!
Review by Brian Swirsky for The Big Takeover Magazine (Issue No 61)
Right on the heels of his appealing 2006 debut album Neon and Gold comes this Chicago-based troubadour’s follow-up, and he’s crafted another good one. Wallace’s velvety, slightly high-pitched voice still recalls a less-dramatic Rufus Wainwright or Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, with a little of Gene’s Martin Rossiter (especially on “The Heap”). He occasionally indulges his classical influences, as on the LP’s bookended set pieces “Counting” and “Counting Backwards” (with oboe/violin/viola courtesy of Emanuel Ban and Grace Hong), and his Chopin/Bach-like piano backing Robin Morgan’s operatic lead on “I Want to Be.” But mostly, he employs traditional rock instrumentation (guitars, keys, hand drums) to create highly engaging pop compositions like “Perfect Weather for a Superhero” and “Insomnia,” which are all infused with Wallace’s inimitable, theatrical flair and mysterious, poetic lyrics.
Review by Coe Douglas for www.coedouglas.org (August 30, 2007):
Dan Wallace has a new CD and it’s absolutely amazing. In fact, I’d argue that it’s without a doubt his most creative effort yet.
Part of what makes Dan’s music so great is his ability to pull in a broad range of subtle musical influences and turn them into something no one has ever heard before. The result is a sort of cutting edge familiarity.
As for the songs, Culture of Self packs lots of punch. He opens with “Counting” a musical interlude that takes the mind on a bit of an aural journey only to give way to “Heap” another textured offering that builds and grows from vulnerable to soaring all while featuring Dan’s impressive vocal range and unique style.
The CD is filled with musical gems, including personal favorites “Low Road,” “Perfect Weather For A Superhero” and “Capsule.” Throughout the disc there are a wealth of unexpected moments from the atypical arrangements to the instrumentation, which is most on display with Dan’s guitar playing. Here he repeatedly teases us with his chops on songs like the previously mentioned “Heap” and “Perfect Weather For A Superhero.”
This isn’t a safe record. It takes chances and sticks its neck out. But this is precisely what makes it so remarkable. This is where pop and rock should be going as a genre.
Dan Wallace challenges his listeners. And as a listener, I sincerely appreciate this. In fact, as his popularity has grown, he’s bucked the trend to simplify and sellout, instead opting to create an even more abstract offering of songs that once they get inside your head will echo for a long time.
Review by Jon Worley for Aiding & Abbeting (September 2007)
I liked Wallace's last album, and this one sounds awfully good to me as well. Wallace is an ambitious songwriter, penning pieces all over the spectrum. There's often a folksy or rootsy undercurrent, but he's quite willing to move past first influences to paint a more complete picture. I like his pastiche approach. It gives his songs that extra shimmer. Another one well done.
Review by Roland Leicht for Prog-Rock.info (August 16, 2007):
Als Betreiber einer Musik-Homepage ist immer wieder schön, unbekannte Künstler kennen zu lernen. Und so ging es mir auch mit Dan Wallace, der mir seine neue CD 'Culture Of Self' für eine Review zur Verfügung gestellt hat. Dan Wallace kommt aus Chicago und die vorliegende Scheibe ist bereits sein zweiter Output als Musiker. Meine Recherchen im Internet haben ergeben, dass das Debüt-Werk mit Namen 'Neon And Gold' doch viele positive Kritiken ... vor allem natürlich in den USA ... bekommen hat. Einsortiert wurde die CD unter Indie-Pop (so bei CD-Baby beschrieben). Mag sein, ich kenne die CD ja nicht, aber 'Culture Of Self' ist sicher kein Indie-Pop. Mich erinnert's ein ganz klein wenig an die CDs von 'Heartscore' (siehe meine Reviews), ohne auch nur halbwegs so 'schräg' zu sein. Trotzdem ist es doch irgendwie nicht wirklich einsortierbar. Dan Wallace wurde vor allem von Dimitri Shostakovich (einem russischen Komponisten aus Sankt Petersburg - 1906 - 1975) und ... Achtung ... Frank Zappa beeinflusst. Nette Mischung würde ich sagen. Aber kommt schon irgendwie hin. Zwischen Beatles ('z.B. Song 2 'The Heap'), klassischer Arie mit Flügel-Begleitung (Song 4 'I Want To Be' mit den weiblichen Vocals von Robin Morgan) bis zu spanischen akustischen Gitarren (Song 6 'The Low Road') ist alles vertreten. So dass die Nähe zu Frank Zappa doch nicht so ganz abwegig ist. Die CD erschließt sich sicherlich erst nach mehrfachem Hören und verwöhnte Prog-Ohren werden damit wahrscheinlich eher ihre Schwierigkeiten haben. Aber aufgeschlossene Musik-Liebhaber, die auch mal einen Blick an den Rand der Rock-Musik werfen, sollten Dan Wallace mal antesten.
Review by Rafael Garcia for 34th Street Magazine (August 1, 2007):
It’s always gratifying to discover a talented, yet little-known, musician. Dan Wallace provides such a thrill with his fine-tuned indie pop. Playing in the clubs of Chicago for some years now, Wallace has earned a group of devoted fans, and it’s time for that group to expand.
On Culture of Self, the artist’s second solo release, Dan Wallace’s versatile , unique singing voice carries his meaningful lyrics and songcraft. Every track on the release is well-written and meaningful. The upbeat “The Heap,” for example, employs tempo changes and strong guitar solos to create a dynamic listening experience. Even the album’s transitional and instrumental tracks portray a refreshing experimentalism, ranging as they do from mournful pieces reminiscent of the Dirty Three to upbeat Spanish-influenced efforts.
Though all of the tracks on the album are strong, one of the better ones would be “Perfect Weather for a Superhero.” The song’s philosophical lyrics convey a compelling message about human guilt, faith, and what it means to be a hero. Elsewhere on the album, “The Low Road” is a haunting acoustic venture exploring the abuses of organized religion. Instrumental flourishes and ghastly backup vocals flesh out this incisive look at mankind.
Despite some errors in album flow and song length, Culture of Self proves itself worthy of investigation. Dan Wallace draws together his wide range of influences to create a sound that’s hard to define, but easy to enjoy. Fans of artists as diverse as Elliott Smith and The Fiery Furnaces should respond well to his inventive and endearing take on music.