Multi-instrumentalist eccentric Ryan Monroe has already garnished plenty of acclaim with his band, Band of Horses; however, he’s yet to venture out as a solo artist. Until now. On his debut release, A Painting of a Painting On Fire (what a great title), he proves to be an impeccably talented and daring musician with a highly enjoyable and unique sound. Frankly, it’s one of the most diverse albums I’ve ever heard.
Having been compared to the Black Keys, David Bowie, ELO, and Neil Young, Monroe had some big shoes to fill with this mix of 70s glam rock and “pop-oriented progressive rock…that seamlessly flows from elaborate pop rockers to complex but melodic ballads.” As clichéd as it sounds, A Painting of a Painting on Fire truly exemplifies the notion that every track sounds like it comes from a different artist. Honestly, it’s unfair to even attach genres and labels to the album as a whole; like The Dear Hunter, each song deserves its own classification. Monroe’s range and vision is vast and confident, and the fact that he plays everything on the album makes him (and it) even more remarkable.
“Doritoys” opens the album with the thick electronic bass of The Flaming Lips, the sharp guitar riffs of Muse, and the production of Magical Mystery Tour era Beatles (with a touch of Mark Bolan in Monroe’s voice). It’s a catchy rocker with layered, intriguing sounds. “The Darkness Will Be Gone” has a much more rustic, folksy quality, as if Fleet Foxes added a bit of southern rock flair to their sound. Like a church in Louisiana, there’s a slight sense of ominousness underneath the seemingly harmless wholesomeness. As for the title track, it’s a piano centric piece that explodes with psychedelic touches, including horns, strings, and echoes. Near the end, Monroe ventures implements some complex measures within the structure, and the way he acts as a vocal chameleon is exceptional.
Although the entire album seems more or less influenced by the arrangements and production of Jeff Lynne, tracks like “Shadow in the Shade” and “On the Beach” truly echo the wonderful blend of pop, rock, prog, and classical that ELO dominated. These songs incorporate more elements than most chemistry creations, and it’s all so astounding. “Any Way, Shape or Deformity” feels like a marvelous nod to Todd Rundgren (specifically, A Wizard, A True Star), whereas “Owl” is a more raucous affair that’s built on a hard rock foundation. “Doak” is a remorseful ballad that’s perfect to end a poignant scene in a film or show, and album closer “My Song” features some stellar percussion and effects amidst its sorrowful melody. It’s a thunderous conclusion both sonically and emotionally.
A Painting of a Painting on Fire is the joyously refreshing and varied first declaration of a brilliant songwriter and musician. Rarely has an artist been able to capture so many different personalities and approaches with such unflinching determination and dexterity. Monroe is a textbook example of how creativity, skill, and originality can flourish limitlessly if the artist is left to his or her own devices and given true freedom over the project. Like the work of Danielson, Sufjan Stevens, and Devin Townsend, A Painting of a Painting on Fire challenges conventions by implementing brand new techniques and structures, and it’s made all the better for it.