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The Boston Phoenix Son Rising

Sean Lennon shines on "Into the Sun."

By Matt Ashare

MAY 18, 1998:  There are plenty of excellent reasons to approach Into the Sun (Grand Royal/Capitol), the debut album by Sean Lennon, with a certain degree of wariness or skepticism. For starters, there's Matthew Nelson, Gunnar Nelson, Jason Bonham, and the Wilson-Phillips gals, who loosely constituted the first disappointing wave of rock progeny who attempted to follow in their famous parents' footsteps. Then there's Julian Lennon, Sean's older half-brother, whose rather cheap bid for pop stardom in the mid '80s (remember his eerily perfect impersonation of daddy titled "Too Late for Goodbyes"?) was as about as cloying and annoying as they come.

But 23-year-old Sean, John and Yoko's only son, is different. Yes, he's an independently wealthy 23-year-old who could easily afford to spend the rest of his life calling the Home Shopping Network. Yes, his family name and connections pretty much ensured that he'd get a record deal of some kind regardless of his talent. And, yes, I've checked in with several psychologists who assure me that it's normal to feel some measure of resentment, jealousy, and/or inferiority when confronted by these facts, so don't worry. Of course, Sean paid a dear price for being born into celebrity: he was only five when he father was murdered and, as he's told several reporters, he grew up fearing that he and his mother were next. The moral here is: be thankful for what you've got. To quote Sean, "Having celebrity status because you're someone's kid is really a double-edged sword."

With Julian's bad example to guide him, Sean confronted and at least partly resolved the issue of his pseudo-celebrity before he even set out to record Into the Sun. First, in 1995, he inspired his mom to make Rising (Virgin), her best album in years. Of course, it was her only album in years, but it was still pretty good. Sean was subsequently reintroduced to the public on Ono's tour, on which his noise-rock trio IMA backed her. Then he hooked up with the hip Japanese-by-way-of-NYC duo Cibo Matto, who invited him to play bass with them. The ensuing US tour put Lennon in a van on virtually the same road that every other struggling musician must travel -- which is probably about as close as any independently wealthy 23-year-old can come to paying dues. In the midst of all this, Sean befriended a Beastie Boy (Adam Yauch) and started dating Cibo Matto's musical director, Yuka Honda -- an older, Japanese-born immigrant to the US whose first name, as Sean has pointed out, is oddly similar to his mom's. Oh well. One thing Sean seems to have learned from Yoko is that there's an art to hanging with the right people. And if you don't think any of this matters, then you don't understand how important perception (self-perception and public perception) is in the realm of celebrity.

Into the Sun, which came out on vinyl earlier this month and will be out on CD and cassette on Tuesday, is, on first listen, a remarkably low-key debut. "Every day I watch the TV shows/It's getting so I know the shows' hosts," Lennon sings against a simple, tuneful backdrop of strummed acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and intermittent ooohing on the disc's opening track, "Mystery Juice." The song then rounds a "Day in the Life" corner when a loud grungy guitar rudely interrupts the reverie midway through, and another when the guitar gives way to an aural collage of analog electronic effects. The sound is pure vintage studio, all warm and fuzzy, almost as scruffy as a four-track home recording, but just a little smoother. There may be the occasional hint of dad's band in there, particularly in the ooohing background harmonies, but that would be an accurate description of roughly half the pop music that's been recorded since 1965. More than anything I was struck by how much Sean's melancholy voice, moody melodies, and soft-spoken delivery remind me of singer/songwriter (and Beatles fan) Elliott Smith -- a feeling that persisted and grew stronger as the folkier pop moments of "Bathtub," "Spaceship," and "Breeze" floated pleasantly by, interrupted just often enough by an abrupt burst of noisy guitar, a jazzy instrumental flourish, or a little techno static.

A second and third listen revealed Into the Sun as, well, a remarkably low-key debut by an unassumingly charismatic young singer/songwriter, though the easygoing sound of the album is, as is often the case, not necessarily an accurate reflection of how much work went into constructing the various tracks. Lennon, who is credited with playing guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards on the disc, was joined in the project by Honda. And Into the Sun has all the appearance of a fully collaborative effort. As the main instrumentalist in Cibo Matto (her partner Miho Hatori handles the vocals in the duo), Honda has distinguished herself as a sophisticated sonic auteur, not to mention a damn fine keyboard player. Her colorfully crafted sample-and-beat collages are so well put together that it more than makes up for Cibo Matto's songwriting shortcomings (their best song performance on disc is a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Aguas de Marco," which appeared on the Silencio = Muerte: Red Hot + Latin compilation and featured Sean on bass). Sean knows a thing or two about crafting a tune, so Honda employs a lighter touch with his material. But you get the sense that, along with the subtle synth shadings that permeate Into the Sun, Honda's DIY studio acumen and apparent mastery of everything from hip-hop to Brazilian swing played a big role in shaping the CD, if only by giving Sean the freedom to dabble so expertly.

A word on Sean's dabbling: in the press bio he wrote he makes way too big a deal out of "exploring and integrating different styles of music" and including an instrumental jazz number ("Photosynthesis"). He concludes his notes by mentioning that "people who have heard my record often comment on how it jumps from rock to jazz to country. I think that's the best thing about it."

In fact the jumps from jazz to rock to country are neither as extreme nor as impressive as Sean seems to think. What impresses is how smoothly and unselfconsciously he and Honda incorporate various styles and allusions into the album's mix of songs without resorting to pastiche or empty displays of technique. The most interesting thing about the disc's title track, for example, isn't that it marries a slinky bossa nova beat to a vocal refrain reminiscent of Stereolab -- that's merely cool -- but that a potentially corny duet between Sean and Yuka (repeat it three times fast and it even sounds like "John and Yoko") is actually touching and romantic. The album's country number, "Part One of the Cowboy Trilogy," is a rickety lo-fi hootenanny replete with some nasty Dylan-style harmonica tooting that has more in common with Beck than it does with anyone from Nashville, especially when Sean croons, "If I was a rooster I would cock-a-doodle all day." And the album's one real conceit, the aforementioned jazz instrumental "Photosynthesis" ("recorded live with a full jazz ensemble"), is a retro-loungy Mancini-style composition outfitted with a virtuoso Philly Joe Jones-style drum solo and some hard-bopping trumpet. It certainly proves that Sean grew up around one of the cooler record collections in the western hemisphere, but in the age of Blue Note sampling it's not going to be much of a stretch for most listeners.

Which is to say that for all of Sean's dabbling, Into the Sun holds together quite well, or at least as well as Odelay. There's a Brian Wilson homage -- "Queue" -- that brings to mind the Beach Boys-loving indie band Papas Fritas; there's an engaging slice of electric piano-laced lite-funk titled "Two Fine Lovers." And I hear a little Bacharach in the jazzy-pop-with-trumpet of "Sean's Theme." But it all sounds like Sean's music -- or Sean and Yuka's music. And the more you listen, the more appealing it gets, as little Beckish lines like "Baby I'm a lonely kind of man/A rapper with a 40 in his hand" and Elliott Smith-style admissions like "Every time that I walk out the door I'm alone in a world that I don't seem fit for" work their way to the surface, and nifty little riffs that may or may not remind you of some other song you once heard implant themselves in your subconscious.

On the surface, Into the Sun is, as advertised, a collection of silly little love songs inspired by Sean's relationship with Yuka. (Yeah, and what's wrong with that?) But ultimately it's also a reflection of the pleasure Sean takes in making good music. His special status as John and Yoko's only son has certainly given him the freedom to indulge his whims and pleasures, but it by no means guaranteed that he'd make an album as special and as subtle as Into the Sun.

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