words: Dylan Pennell
MERCH’s (aka Joe Medina) new LP, Amour Bohemian, is an immense project that features contributions from 65 different artists, including the 30-piece Prague FILMharmonic—one of Europe’s most sought-after recording orchestras that has previously worked with Werner Herzog, Ridley Scott, Arcade Fire and Joanna Newsom.
Originally, Medina flew to Prague with the demos for Amour Bohemian and sat in on the FILMharmonic sessions. Then it was on to LA’s Lollipop Studios and Oakland’s Creamery to record the band tracks, with Medina playing numerous guitars (including a gorgeous 1968 Les Paul Black Beauty), Joe Lewis on electric and acoustic bass, and opera singers Emily Markoe, Acacia Newlon, and Josh Garcia. Greg Ashley engineered the Oakland sessions and Jimi Marks played the drums on those sessions while Richard Gowen from The Growlers and Matt Adams of The Blank Tapes added some drum and guitar work to the Lolipop sessions. The album was mixed at Blue Dust Studios with Chris Porro in San Francisco without plug-in effects--utilizing 60s-era spring reverbs and tape delays, Medina even went as far as singing into a mic at the bottom of a trashcan to add an echo to his vocals.
A densely layered, wildly ambitious record rooted in Medina’s love of vintage film soundtracks, Scott Walker and Lee Hazlewood, Amour Bohemian’s cinematic sound is a brilliant fusion of classic pop, psych and garage that’s peppered with reverent nods to the old-school crooners, Mexican ranchero, French chanson and ’30s big-band Jazz. Medina shrieks and howls like a descendant of The Mothers of Invention and croons like Leonard Cohen, evoking a serendipitous combination of love and estrangement.
The moment the album opens with unimpeachable washes of noise, as supplied by scads of instruments, we are introduced into a parallel universe in which Medina seems to be constantly followed around lonely streets with a raucous orchestra in tow, eager to take the next cue and rush back into the ears of anyone who will listen. Despite this Spector-like approach to orchestral pop, songs like the opener “Don’t Wait Too Long,” the thundering sweetness of “Two Hearts,” and the clamorously fuzzed-out “According to the Doctors” assuage offer a type of profound romantic release, rather than just serving as emotional detritus.
Juggling profound rockers and James Bond-appropriate balladry, Merch offers something singular and familiar all in one fell swoop. With its touches of latin-tinged horns and affectionate strings giving the record enough tonal diversity and depth to last for days, Medina has crafted a piece of art that, while paying homage to the various incarnations of his work, fully commits to an artistic vision that is entirely his. Ultimately time will tell whether it has any lasting power, but given the strength of these productions, if Medina keeps at it, he may be able to secure his own place in the spotlight yet.