Monday, January 07, 2008

Gustafer Yellowgold

For a long time, my appreciation for Gustafer Yellowgold hadn't really been sparked, in the same sense as I described for Frances England's music... I had read a lot of glowing accolades but had only heard a few brief samples, and thought, "It sounds okay..." But I hadn't been blown away enough to get really excited about it. In the case of Frances England, it just took one listen through the actual album, beyond just brief samples, to have her infectious and brilliant songs imprinted on me. With Gustafer Yellowgold, all it took was a viewing of one of his DVDs. To use terms usually reserved for the world of magic and sorcery, I was utterly enchanted, spellbound, mesmerized and charmed.

Gustafer Yellowgold is the cute cartoon creation of singer/songwriter Morgan Taylor, who writes and records Gustafer's musical musings and also illustrates and provides the storyboard direction for the DVD animations. There are two Gustafer DVDs,
Wide Wild World and Have You Never Been Yellow? (for which he gets a half point off for parodying the title of an Olivia Newton-John album). Gustafer comes from the sun, as the introduction song ("Cooler World") on both DVDs describes, and has traveled to Minnesota, where things are apparently quite different than on the sun (he was aiming for somewhere a little colder). The songs and videos, full of wit and whimsy, relate Gustafer's experiences and wonderment with various things he discovers in his new Earth life, and so we share the same wonderment through the simple but clever animations and generally mellow but engaging songs. The subjects can be a rather odd assortment, including pinecones, mustard slugs, eels, cake, cheese and beards, and there isn't really any narrative or theme connecting everything, other than Gustafer observing and commenting on his new world. But every song/video is its own little amusement, and they each work terrifically in that sense.

In terms of influences for the general idea and animation style of Gustafer, one might guess that Morgan Taylor has probably watched Harry Nilsson's classic animated story,
The Point, once or twice (or fifty times). In that story, a round-headed boy named Oblio finds himself in a world where every other creature and object must have a point (literally, as in a pointy head or a particularly pointy nose). Being that Gustafer is the odd one on Earth, I imagine that Gustafer's rather pointy head might be an homage to that show. Regardless, Gustafer is very much an original and the combination of classic storybook illustration and animation almost has more of the feel of Ken Burns' pan-and-scan documentaries, with objects gently and creatively moving around each other. This is clearly 2D animation, but there is very nice use of object layering and every animation choice is used to great effect.

Musically speaking, the Gustafer songs seem to be happily ensconced in 60's/70's acoustic melancholy, hearkening to Harry Nilsson, James Taylor (presumably no relation) and The Beatles circa
The White Album and Yellow Submarine. While the production and sound is clearly from that era, the songs themselves are true originals, with hooks and chord turns that aren't overt, but reach out and tickle you enough to keep your interest throughout. Morgan's voice is often double-tracked into a sweet syrup, and his delivery and tone is akin to both Neil Young's plaintive acoustic singing and Billy Corgan's whispery breathings. Personal taste leans my ears toward the former, and not so much the latter, so I prefer the Gustafer songs (or parts of songs) where Morgan sings out fully, like on the transcendent anthem, "Pinecone Lovely" (video below). But regardless, Morgan has a beautiful sense of contrast between the different songs and song sections, in terms of varying his vocal delivery to fit the needs of the moment.

Would the songs alone stand up, without having ever seen the animations? For adults, yes, but I don't think they would work as well for kids without having any connection at all to the imagery. But the Gustafer package is clearly meant to be a fusion of songs and images (and his live shows always feature the animations on a video screen), and kids and adults alike can certainly appreciate the combination as intended, in a very big way. Stephen Sondheim is often criticized for not having any "take home" songs from his musicals ("Send in the Clowns" being the notable exception), but his songs are meant to work perfectly within the context of their shows. That is their primary working environment. I think the same can be said for the Gustafer songs working best along with the environment of their video accompaniment. However, having seen the video several times, kids will definitely have a big attachment to the songs and can thereafter enjoy them strictly from the CDs (which are included with the DVDs).

The Gustafer DVDs have been big hits for my girls, who request them often along with their other video favorites like the Pixar movies and The Wiggles. My 5 year-old, Becca, has even given Gustafer the rare honor of a space in her dreams. Every night, as part of their bedtime routine, our girls like us to ask them what they're going to dream about. (Apparently, they're really into "directed dreaming".) Well, there have been a few nights recently where Becca specified "Gustafer" as her dream choice. A budding artist and animator, herself, she has also stated that she wished she had created Gustafer (heheh... Me, too!).

In addition to the Gustafer videos and music, Morgan Taylor also provided a few songs for a nice compilation of children's music by the ArtsCetera organization, called Sing, Shout & Clap. Click here for song samples and to order the CD.

Gustafer Yellowgold website

"Your Eel" from Wide Wild World -

"Birds" from Have You Never Been Mellow? -

"Pinecone Lovely" from Have You Never Been Mellow? -


GBK Gwyneth said...

Me too, Becca, me too. I'll settle for getting a little yellow plush Gustafer at some time, though.

Great review, Eric. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thisi is a great review. Your comparisons are apt. Good take on Gustafer Yellowgold. We like the whimsy best.