There is a lot to be said about classical or art music influences on the realm of pop music, but the desire to implement the two has always played a crucial role in American music. Whether its through composers like Steve Reich or pop musicians like Sufjan Stevens, the doors for cross-cultural musical assimilation have been blown open, leaving plenty of room for an artist like Canon Blue to exist. Canon Blue is the solo project of singer-songwriter Daniel James and Rumspringa is sophomore album (his first being a collaboration with Grizzly Bear member Chris Taylor). Throughout the album, James seems to be on the mission to make the case that orchestral brass and strings can replace guitars in upbeat pop songs. And in many ways, he succeeds in doing that.
The album opens with some Steve Reich-influenced woodblock hits and repetitious horn blasts that are immediately recognizable to the listener familiar with artists like Steve Reich and Sufjan Stevens. The spin that Canon Blue gives it, though, comes in the form of a big, chugging, four-on-the-floor kick drum. In this opening song, "Chicago (Chicago)", you get a pretty good preview for what most of the album will sound like: Steve Reich orchestrations, polished production, soaring vocal melodies, and wildly energetic drum beats. Like what Local Natives were to Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes last year, Canon Blue boosts orchestral pop with an emphatic amount of energy and charisma.
In what feels like another homage to Sufjan Stevens are the geographical references in the song titles. Each named after different American cities, the varied instrumentation and styles represented in the music really give each song a sense of location. Whether its the somber horn sections of "Fading Colors (Bloomington)" or the creeping violin line that opens "A Native (Madison)", the road-trip attitude of the album gives it a strong personality that feels like it takes you from one and place and really takes you to somewhere else. "Honeysuckle (Milwaukee)" opens with fluttering electronics, while songs like "Fading Colors (Bloomington)" feature cooing background vocals against glimmering glockenspiels, each of the songs attempting to do something creative and innovative.
Unfortunately, at times the songwriting and lyric-writing left me a little underwhelmed next to the size of the colossal arrangements. Some of the lyrical themes can feel a little rehashed and predictable, which is a bit of letdown compared to some of the clever wordplay in other tracks. I can't help feel that there was a bit of an opportunity missed in going a bit further with the locations these songs are supposedly based in. I would have loved to hear more specific references to these places that would help differentiate the songs from each other and support the music.
Rumspringa, which literally means "jumping around" or "running around", refers to a coming-of-age adolescence in Amish communities. While there is little in this album in the way of religious thematic material, Canon Blue's sophomore album definitely feels like a release of untamed energy. In some ways, it sounds like a young singer-songwriter discovering the depths of the symphony orchestra for the first time or conversely, the music of a classically-trained music student being redeemed from the shackles of a stuffy music academy. And even though the linear nature of most of the songs were one of the main problems I had with the album, it still feels incredibly youthful and rebellious. Ultimately, Rumspringa is a piece of charming orchestral pop that takes in influences from the likes Sufjan Stevens and Owen Pallett and creates something that is not nearly as daring, but still entirely enjoyable and worthwhile.