The word "genius" is severely overused, but if Jon Brion hasn't earned it, no one has. He composes movie scores, produces records, plays every instrument that you can imagine (he's contributed notable guest performances to records by Beck and Elliott Smith), and has released an album of original material. His talent is enviably flexible, but everything that he does bears the mark of his original and distinctive sensibility; his work is always marked by a lush, ornate, retro atmosphere, catchy riffs played on antique instruments, and a delicate balance between wit and sadness. It's the sort of music that makes you feel nostalgic the first time you hear it. Whether you know it or not, you've heard Brion play, and you may be an unconscious fan.
Listen to the score of a movie that Jon Brion has worked on -- there's bound to be one that you like, from Punch-Drunk Love to I Heart Huckabees to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- and see how many of your impressions were cued by his musical choices.
Compare several albums produced by Brion -- like Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2, Fiona Apple's When The Pawn (and the often-downloaded, never-released original version of Extraordinary Machine), or Kanye West's Late Registration -- and you'll see that, no matter who he works with, he manages to imbue the record with his own charm. In spite of his formidable studio credit, many fans insist that Brion does his best work in concert -- which is unfortunate, because, apart from giving weekly performances at Largo in L.A., he hardly ever tours.
Last week, Brion gave three extremely rare New York performances at the Canal Room. At the show I attended, Brion played for two and a half hours, with no set list and no inhibitions. The small stage was covered with instruments, and he played all of them himself, from the drums to the grand piano. Brion builds tracks live, moving from instrument to instrument, sampling and looping his own riffs until the wall of echo transcends itself and becomes a song. That sounds dull until you see Brion in action, roving around the stage like high-wire artist without a net, relying on nothing but his gear and his overcrowded imagination.
At my show, Brion played Tchaikovsky on electric guitar and piano -- simultaneously, with one hand on each instrument -- led the audience in a Beach Boys sing-along, segued from "Love Will Keep Us Together" to the Looney Tunes theme song to "Lithium," and then, at the last moment, whipped out a heartbreaking Chet Baker cover. He also performed a generous handful of his own songs, including a delicate and deeply felt version of "Strings That Tie To You," a song from the Eternal Sunshine soundtrack. Jon Brion lives up to his reputation as a live artist. His performance at the Canal Room was breathtaking: intimate, wild, and wickedly fun. Although he rarely comes to New York, he promised the crowd that he would come back soon. Start planning for it.