doug cullen
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doug cullen

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The best kept secret in music

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"Doug Cullen - Zero Means Love"

Admittedly, I consider myself something of a connoisseur of singer-songwriters. Dylan to Phil Ochs, Paul Simon to Lou Reed, Neil Young to Patti Smith, Vic Chesnutt to Elliott Smith - there is something undeniably appealing about the idea of a solo entity sitting down with an acoustic guitar and banging out a set of songs that speak of one person's experience. No doubt, though, that approach is riddled with more than a little danger and potential for abuse. With no other band members to bounce ideas off, the excesses of one individual's muse can run wild. (Anybody with a passing knowledge of the cumulative solo work of the Beatles may attest to this.) And what about when somebody just doesn't have anything to say? Or at least nothing to say in an interesting or unique way? The potential for over-confessional self-revelation masquerading as verse or impenetrable verse masquerading as profound truth has been painfully realized time and again. Charging straight into this multitude of dilemmas is Doug Cullen.

Obviously, Cullen knows a little about songwriting. He spins out a variety of textures and melodies, produces an array of gloomy chord changes while holding sung notes for multiple syllables and sounding altogether vulnerable. With a variety of acoustic guitars, keyboards, banjos, accordions, and percussion instruments, Cullen weaves an elegantly dour tapestry of lo-fi sounds. Guessing by the homemade artwork and CD-R format, Cullen most probably recorded this on his home PC, and he shows an impressive hand on the production end, throwing out a variety of fuzzy looped and crackling trip-hopish beats that add a whole different element to the more staid elements of his songwriting. An excellent example of his distinctive approach, the grinding rhythms and background pings of "Portrait" offer an interesting contrast to the banjo that is also featured prominently. He has termed it "Experimental Electronic Folk Music." And while that's an ambitious genre to coin, he's mostly right on that count, as the blunt combination of acoustic and electronic textures is something reasonably unique to the universe of singer-songwriters.

For the most part, though, Cullen sounds like a less florid version of Elliott Smith, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The soft classical guitar strums of "Slowly the Cycle" and the softly swaying "Snowboots" are fairly nice approximations of that school of songwriting. And while his melodies aren't particularly sharp - instead following a long, loping route through strangely aching changes - he could almost pass for an extremely un-cheery version of Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, who also likes to twist a melody while seemingly picking randomly from a comprehensive chord book. The general murky quality of the production, though, calls to mind the early acoustic side of Guided by Voices, as all the textures, no matter how vibrant, seem to be covered in a layer of haze. Musically, Cullen sidesteps most of the normal obstacles that slow down the average singer-songwriter. He doesn't fall in love with any one sound, and he doesn't employ easy clich├ęs. He has found a fairly unique sound.

Still, Cullen doesn't completely avoid the lyrical snafus generally associated with these types of artists. Although it does tend to match the general open-ended nature of his musical arrangements, his verse can be both awkwardly honest and frustratingly vague - if not downright evasive. Generally, he seems to be cataloguing a litany of offenses perpetrated upon him by one or a number of previous lovers, and he seems to be having more than a little trouble getting over this. Bouncing from rhetorical questions like "Who am I living for? You? You or me?" ("The House that My Father Built") to rather elusive statements like "All my children love me / and all my children fear me / but not all my children can hear me" ("All My Children"), Cullen can leave the listener not entirely sure of what his intended message is. Still, that's hardly a complaint, as many of the great word-slingers have been rather dense, but sometimes Cullen doesn't even seem to point in the general direction of where his purpose is aimed.

In summary, Doug Cullen is a good singer-songwriter. Maybe not a great one, at least not yet, but one that isn't nearly as boring as the great majority of the ones you'll likely find. As this is his first album, it's not entirely evident that he has settled into his sound yet, but it would seem unlikely that he won't polish down the rough edges in a fairly short amount of time. But even if he doesn't change it around much, the basic elements demonstrate a spirit of experimentation and reluctance to simply adhere to the worn-out singer-songwriter-isms. As such, he's an artist worth keeping an eye on, and Zero Means Love is a solidly entertaining listen that should probably be viewed as an interesting precursor to more refined work.

-Matt Fink - Delusions of Adequacy


Discography

"Nothing Happens," was self released by Doug in 2003.

Photos

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Bio

Doug has been writing songs for about 12 years. He is keenly interested in the intersection between the folk and electronic genres. He delights in stirring up the unlikely sounds of acoustic instruments and sampled sounds of nature or the ambient environment. Doug's major influences are bjork, tom waits, bob marley, jon coltrane, debussy, iron and wine and the innocence mission. Doug's music shows a relentless willingness to explore the bounds of songwriting.