Soldier's joy

Aaron Lee Marshall's intriguing Now Maybe
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  December 2, 2009

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DUAL POWER Aaron Lee Marshall.

For a deconstructionist, the new album from Aaron Lee Marshall presents any number of philosophical difficulties. Trained to consider a piece of art solely for its own sake, and to ignore the maker of the art, how do I listen to a man's music and not take into consideration the fact that he's an Iraq veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart for "Exceptionally Meritorious Achievement during ground combat operations in Ba'qubah, Iraq on 9 April 2004?" Apparently, "PFC Marshall's intrepid actions while under heavy RPG and small arms fire were remarkable. Returning to his fighting position three times after having been thrown clear by the concussion of near direct RPG hits and eliminating the enemy insurgents with his M249 SAW and AT4 were truly courageous acts that reflect his warrior ethos."

Forget deconstructionism. How do I criticize a war hero's album when the only fist-fight I've ever been in was a one-punch affair with a kid wearing glasses back in junior high?

The thing is, NowMaybe, if taken at face value, is simply a collection of well-delivered, interestingly produced pop-rock tunes with plenty of '80s influences. If you want to view it through a war-tinted lens, though, there are any number of ways to read songs that could have otherwise been written by any local schlub who never left Maine.

Take "Gracie's Song," penned for his daughter. He's not quite sing-the-phone-book good as a singer, but he's good enough to carry a pretty cliché songwriting subject without it being maudlin, and he even works in a cool take on "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes." Armed with the knowledge of his background, though, returning from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder, only to find divorce and losing custody of his daughter, the song takes on an added emotional charge. It's one of the things that makes me feel most for soldiers, really, that separation from their families — especially considering I tear up every time I see a Dora backpack after I've been on a business trip to Las Vegas for 48 hours.

But to focus too much on his former enlistment is to short-shrift Marshall and this album. Working with Francisco Santos at Superior Sound Studios in Somersworth, New Hampshire, he's put together a cool mish-mash of organic songs infused with digital flavor (Santos performs as rapper Frank Buddas, so it's not surprising). The album opens with "From This Green Tree," full of keyboards like steel drums and a chord progression that allows you to sing along with the chorus from Toto's "Africa" without missing a beat. It is, I think, the first of three songs about dope-smoking (the other two more obviously, so): "it's just you and me, seeing the things we can see, from this green tree . . . everyone I see is blissfully without a need for energy."

There's an ancient fiddle song called "Soldier's Joy" that purportedly refers to everything from 18th-century spruce beer to Civil War-era morphine. It seems to me that escapism has always been important for soldiers. Marshall's no different.

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