Before he was busy producing Kanye West’s Late Registration and composing film scores for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “I Heart Huckabees,” Jon Brion was just one of four members in the terribly overlooked pop band known as The Grays.
The album’s title, Ro Sham Bo, refers to the game of rock-paper-scissors, in which disparate elements interact with each other in random, strategic and dynamic ways. Likewise, the chemistry between the band’s four members – Brion, Jason Falkner, Buddy Judge and Dan McCarroll – attains that same dynamic. They are distinct at the same time, each writing individual songs with subtle, idiosyncratic differences. Unsurprisingly, the album’s cover art is a collage of the four members’ faces, each comprising a fourth of a singular and cohesive whole.
The Grays take influence from the melodic pop bands of the ’60s and ’70s, like the Beach Boys and The Zombies. Brion, Falkner and Judge share the vocal duties; but more than that, they divide writing responsibilities and shape their respective songs in substantial ways.
Judge’s tracks are propelled by the rhythm section, characterized by lively bass lines and energetic drums. This works especially well on “Nothing,” which begins with a desolate piano phrase before the bass arrives and the song accelerates forward.
While Judge is a capable songwriter, it’s the dynamic between Falkner and Brion that steals the spotlight. Falkner’s songs are typically quicker, zipping along with an optimistic pleasantness. In the album’s opener, written by Falkner, he sanguinely sings “Everything is going to be all right, despite my fighting tears / Cause these are the very best years.”
In contrast, Brion’s songs are melancholic and downhearted. Bravura multi-instrumentalist that he is, Brion expertly captures the dejection of album closer “No One Can Hurt Me” with harmonic guitars, tremulous bass riffs and timid drums. Bitterer still is Brion’s revelation of the song’s titular significance, singing timorously, “No one can hurt me like you do.” Together, Brion and Falkner are the diametric forces of the emotional tension that make Ro Sham Bo such an intriguing and melodically bipolar album.
While their musical influences are obvious, The Grays sound uniquely their own. This kind of music isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but it’s made with a punctiliousness so razor-sharp that no song can be considered filler material. Lovelorn despair, ecstatic rapture – these are some of the familiar themes revitalized by the band’s individual and collective creativity.
Brion is particularly praiseworthy, deftly crafting melodies around spiraling guitars and harmonizing vocals. Even at this early point in his career, Ro Sham Bo exemplifies the melodic arrangements at which he excels.
Kanye West was so impressed with Brion’s work on Late Registration that he asked him to produce his next album, Graduation. Director Paul Thomas Anderson trusts Brion alone with the score of his films, including the upcoming “There Will Be Blood.” If you’re curious as to why he’s in such high demand, just listen to Ro Sham Bo. Combining Brion’s inimitable knack for melody with three similarly talented artists, The Grays’ first and only album is a gem, an offbeat pop experiment now sadly out of print.