iTunes makes it hard to forget about Aaron Ackerson. Every time I loaded it up, I wound up seeing that one weird MP3 I downloaded ten years ago: “The Artichoke Song”. From the album The Sexiest Man on Earth. By Aaron Ackerson. Well, after several years of seeing that over and over, I was sold. I would track down this Sexiest Man on Earth and track it down I did. And it wound up being kind of a neat album, really. I had assumed it was going to be some dumb novelty hip-hop thing; Aaron Ackerson’s rapping is so goofball and odd that you can’t help but smile a little. But Sexiest Man on Earth was just like, whoa, all over the map. It’s a ballsy album; not only are half the songs these sort of one-off genre excursions, but the man in charge has a degree of swagger that is not typically befitting of this level of vocal talent. You’ve got stuff like the “Not the End”, which is happy-hardcore-gone-bonkers, with lyrics that are real creepy and apparently not meant to be ironic at all. You’ve got “Melodrama”, which is a rare, totally sincere moment which accidentally (?) cops a whole bunch of “Stayin’ Alive”. You’ve got big dumb cock-rock like “Keep God Out of Canada” which bites it a little, but then again on many of the other tracks it seems like Ackerson really, really does know what he’s doing. Some of the arrangements are great (there are plenty of strings, and he knows when to keep his voice in the background), and he clearly knows his way around the piano; stuff like “Allusion to an Illusion of an Allusion” and “Answers” show off some classical training, while “Love Fix” is over seven minutes long and builds to something totally gorgeous. And “Ten Pounds of Love” gets stuck in my head all the time. Y’all remember that kid in school who was like, really outgoing and kind of weird but also awesome in his own way? That’s Aaron.
Anyway, a decade later, A-squared finally put out a follow-up called Outside on the Inside, inspired by his three years in Japan (and don’t all these guys wind up there at some point?). The first half of this is more overtly inspired by Japanese culture – there are two songs sung in the language, something called “The Ninja Song”, and “Let’s Have Such a Coffee”, whose lyrics consist entirely of badly translated English. There’s even one song (“Hokku”) made up of traditional Japanese poetry, and it’s a real trip; completely a capella but with a deep choral sound, it feels like something from a completely different album. Otherwise much of this is introspective, ruminating on the thoughts that could cause a guy to pack up for a faraway country; on “Inside” he asks “Am I pursuing my dreams? Or am I just running away?”. On “Outside”…”I don’t know what I’m doing here”. Did he wind up trading one brand of loneliness for another? You can certainly understand what might drive such a person to do this – the romanticism, a fascination with the bizarre, the chance to begin anew, an opportunity to find something within yourself that maybe wasn’t there before. More importantly it’s a chance to do something crazy that most people don’t have the opportunity to do – at 21, I was considering an 18-month trip much like this. At 28, it seems unthinkable.
You really don’t know what to expect from Aaron Ackerson on a musical level. Much like his first album the songs here bounce all over the place. Even at less than 40 minutes it is tough to make any kind of generalization here – Ackerson is the type to really go all-in on a genre; “Hokku” is perhaps most out of place but every song here is it’s own thing. The first half has a lot of these types of excursions – “Live It” is Ackerson’s go at Andrew W.K., with chugging guitars and ultra-positive lyrics (“Make your choice, it’s now or never/and don’t look back, you know it’s for the better/and make mistakes, it’s a good experience, do it” – that’s one way to convince yourself to take a major life detour). In fact, AWK feels like a big influence here altogether, particularly his Close Calls With Brick Walls album, which seems to inform several of the tunes here. “Let’s Have Such a Coffee” is full-on bluegrass, every bit as fun and outlandish as you would imagine. And “The Ninja Song” is sort of hip-hop, but with steel guitar. In fact there is a lot of steel guitar on this album, which is a bit odd considering that outside of “Coffee” there is nothing in the same area code as country music. But you can certainly understand Ackerson’s motivation for using it…it sounds great, so why not?
That’s been the saving grace of Ackerson’s music – he’s a good piano player, and he has an alright voice, but he’s got a good ear for arrangements and melody, even when he’s going totally off-the-wall. Look at “SHC”, probably my favorite song here – there’s some kind of pop-prog tune at it’s core, but there’s also walls of guitar noise, record scratches, auto-tuned vocals, and these blippy arpeggios in the background; it’s brash and overambitious but it totally works. I can’t think of another song like it. Elsewhere there’s the big opus “Taiko no Yatsu” – it begins with a rather out-of-character stomp-n-chant section (though, what really is out-of-character for this guy?) before turning into a speedy drum and bass workout with unintelligible rapping (sample lyric: “Fear is something in a box/fox in socks/natty dreadlocks/like smallpox, kickin’ out jams/I don’t eat Christmas ham, bam, thank you Sam”). Like steel guitar combined with hip-hop, it can work if you embrace your eccentricities enough and know what you’re doing. Aaron does both.
There’s one lyric that I really like on here: “When he’s present, he’s sure to be the source of everybody’s tension/and if he joins in, he’s going to be everyone’s object of condescension”. I think anyone who’s ever felt some deep insecurity can probably relate to this on some level. I don’t know if Aaron feels this way (though the final line in the song: “they will say that he should have stayed at home” kinda implies that sometimes he does), but you have to dig the fact that he puts himself out there like this. There’s a whole community of this sort of homemade music, much of which aims for the novelty or comedy crowd, like some of this does. But Outside on the Inside doesn’t have that enveloping layer of irony; it’s just a dude making the kind of music that he himself would like, unfiltered. Isn’t that the way they all should be?
Aaron Ackerson Bandcamp: http://aaronackerson.bandcamp.com/
Recommended to sample: “The Ninja Song”, “SHC”, “Inside”, plus “Love Fix” from the first album