Marc Platt’s Bitter & Sweet (Dream Wild Records) is a masterpiece, a chain of powerful songs beautifully produced and rendered. Platt has been writing great songs and making powerful albums for years. But this a new level of greatness for him. This is as good as it gets.
“Songs should be sturdy,” Van Dyke Parks said. “They shouldn’t fall apart like a cheap watch on the street.” I thought of that quote while listening – and then relistening, many times – to Bitter & Sweet. These are songs written by a guy who understands the intrinsic architecture of songs. These songs are sturdy and solid, designed so they won’t fall apart on the street. Ever.
Like the greatest songs, these ones endure. Not only don’t they fall apart, they get better every time you hear them. They bring with them the happy reward of recognition, of realizing that yes, indeed, this is as good as I thought, this is as powerful, as cool and unexpected. It’s those little harmonic or melodic divergences, unexpected chord changes, for example, that become the very element that lends the song its power and longevity, and makes you want to hear it again and again.
Platt is well-known in Angeleno creative circles not only for the solidity of his own songs, but also for his vast knowledge and love of the pop-rock songs of past decades. He’s a guy who aims for the timeless in songs, those elements which make songs come alive at the moment, and for moments to come.
When songwriters produce other songwriters, the results are often especially compelling, as when Walter Becker produced Rickie Lee Jones, or Jackson Browne produced Warren Zevon. Songwriters know what makes a song tick, enhancing the specific strengths of the song as opposed to forcing them into predetermined production styles. Lisa Nemzo, long one of L.A.’s most revered songwriters, has produced these songs with copious and palpable love for what Platt does, lovingly framing the songs to underscore the strength of each. She started with an idea often considered arcane these days, that the song is the thing.
But it’s a good place to start when producing a songwriter such as Platt, whose songs are so cannily constructed that a producer needn’t invent new elements as much as focus and enhance what’s already there.
“Sucker’s Game” is a good example, with a great built-in rave-up rock swagger that the Stones could play the hell out of – though this great moaning electric guitar throughout is closer to Fripp than Keith Richards. Nemzo allowed the song to come to life in the studio, locking in a solid groove spiced by rhythm and lead guitars.
Nemzo also co-wrote five of the songs here, including the title track as well as the greatly affirmative “I Will Carry You,” which is at once both simple and complex musically, shifting through unexpected changes. Sidney Lumet once said the goal of art is to achieve a perfection that isn’t obvious: “inevitability does not equal predictability.” It’s a wisdom that connects all these songs, which never seem contrived or arbitrary and yet are also freshly non-imitative. Like the best of songs, they break new ground with much loving respect for what’s come before.
It’s also wise to surround the songwriter with great musicians who know how to spark a song, and Nemzo did that, assembling a small group that does everything – even drums – as well as bass, keyboards, harmonies, guitars and more – all played by Platt and Nemzo along with Berington Van Campen, Keith Wechsler, Paul McCarty, Thomas Hornig, Jason P. Chesney and Dale LaDuke. (Dale is the only one on accordion.) The level of musicianship throughout is as elevated as the songwriting.
“Must Be You” is a little gem, a perfect song in less than three minutes. A lovely declaration of new love set to two acoustic guitars with sweetly sparse piano sparkles, it unfolds without a single false note. Its bridge is further evidence of an inspired, seasoned songwriter at work; like a classic McCartney “middle-eight,” it cuts away to a whole other scene before seamlessly returning to where we started.
“My Heart Needs Something New,” written with Patty Matson, is an ideal marriage of words and music, the title line sings with its music with absolute rightness, as if they both emerged together. It’s haunting and hopeful, bringing sorrow from past heartbreaks to meet up with a reason to believe.
“We Don’t Get Along” has a classic and visceral, electric Neil Young meets R.E.M. vibe. Solidly set to a folk-rock groove and stinging electric guitar, it’s a song about saying the unsaid, the stuff that can’t be taken back. It’s point of no return time, but lovingly – that the singer wrote such a poignant song is evidence of real love, wrapped much more in resignation than rage.
If Otis Redding worked with Steely Dan, it might sound a lot like “The Way It Has To Be,” which has a slick and snaky minor-key soul feel but with hip modern slant, another lovely fusion of the forever past with now.
Nemzo-Platt saved one of the album’s most powerful songs for the end. “Alone With You In A Crowd,” which they co-wrote, has a gloriously charged melody, reminiscent of the way Roy Orbison shaped songs to ascend and swell before exploding into an anthemic chorus. It’s classic build & burst songwriting with a deeply tuneful chorus that takes the title and runs with it. It’s one of those titles that says it all, and by being so eminently singable highlights the issue at hand – that what’s on the surface isn’t showing the whole story. It’s savvy songwriting, which with different music could seem contrived, and yet with the soulful purity of these chords and this melody is poignantly dimensional and delicious. It’s an ideal candidate for a new theme song for so many who have felt this exact emotion and yet never had a song to define it.
“The Life I Wanna Live” opens the album with a dramatic pulsating orchestral arrangement built on the rhythm of the chord changes, like a Brian Wilson track, with the drums (played by Nemzo) delicately commenting on the situation rather than dominating it. It’s a powerful opener, with Platt’s voice as clear and resonant as Willie Nelson singing about blue eyes crying in the rain. His vocals throughout the album, wisely mixed so as to clearly project the lyrics, are confidently soulful.
These days musicians often don’t think in terms of albums anymore, leaning towards producing singles for downloads. But there’s an unmistakable power in the momentum of a great collection of songs, how they sound in sequence, and the emotions created by hearing the whole rather than its parts. This is one of those albums, like the ones we listened to forever growing up, of strong songs connected by a singular energy and vision that lingers long after the music is done. My plan was to listen to this just a few times so I could review it, but I found myself wanting to hear it over and over, which is a good feeling in these disposable times in which there are more albums than ever, but fewer good songs.
We’re in an age in which technology enables artists to create remarkable sounding stuff even when there’s little there in terms of an actual song, something of substance. But when artists start with a real song – and craft substantial, inspired work before making the record – the consequence is something far more dimensional and moving than sonic confection. It’s something designed to last. And it reminds us what songs can do. Platt is someone who has never forgotten this truth.
So take the time to listen to this. You’ll be glad you did. Music this good matters.