As evidenced on his self-released eponymous full-length, the
free-spirited Kuwaiti-American rocker’s got plenty of soul.
BY BARRY ST. VITUS
And yea, it was written that it would be
harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to
enter God’s kingdom. It’s equally as
difficult to persuade a person to listen to a recording made by an artist they’ve
never heard of. That’s easy to
understand as there are now more bands out there than ever before, and it’s
tough for many people to listen to new music, especially when there’s all that
older, beloved music that’s as comfortable as those old worn-in pair of jeans
we favor. It helps to have what I call ‘instant ear,’ where you quickly suss
whether of not you like something you hear right away, a very useful talent for
a person barraged by new music all of the time. Intrigued by the dramatic
back-story of this artist, I decided to give the self-released Yusif! (www.cdbaby.com/cd/yusif) a spin and was quickly
impressed by what I heard, an instantly engaging and ecstatic debut album with
Yusif is a Kuwaiti-American, born in Seattle,
but spent his early years in Kuwait during the Gulf War, from where he and his
mother were evacuated. He spent his formative years split between two cultures,
feeling something of an outcast in both.
Raised in a strict household, his father broke Kuwaiti laws by making
wine in the closet, which Yusif would poach, then sneak off into the desert to
do what teens do, hang out with girls, play music, get drunk and smoke weed.
This was the beginning of a heavily self-destructive period in his life. As he
felt more and more ostracized by his schoolmates, he fell more heavily into
drug abuse, finally begging his family to let him return to Seattle to live
with his grandparents. This was finally allowed, but, failing to be eligible
for high school there, things went from bad to worse. Drug abuse became more of
a problem and he found himself still the outsider with his peers, isolated and
depressed. Happily, he finally was admitted to a community college and
eventually graduated from John Hopkins University. His black days in Seattle
had lead him into the burgeoning Grunge music scene, where he felt kinship with
music from bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and the rest. With school behind
him, he hit the road with his guitar, playing small venues from coast to coast,
getting his chops down and doing lots of writing. His inspiration came from
growing up in a war-torn society, being an outsider in two cultures and his
often-painful struggle to find an identity in the world.
Of hard lessons learned, he observes,
“Sometimes our most destructive moments and greatest tragedies end up becoming
our triumphs.” He draws upon these
gritty life experiences for his music, revealing his hope for a better, more
peaceful, loving world to live in, and mostly accomplished without maudlin
sentiments for the most part. One exception to that would be “My Heart Is Yours
Forever”. Considering his early
tribulations, there is easy forgiveness in his songs, and I imagine, catharsis.
With clear, breathy vocals that lie in the realm of singers like Conor Oberst,
Gordon Gano and Howard DeVoto, or other songsters with a lot of ‘O’s’ in their
name, he narrates his musical stories.
The opening tune, “Third World Soldier” is
based on the horror he and his family endured during the Gulf War, he and his
mother were separated from his father, who was trapped in Kuwait during
Saddam’s invasion. It’s anti-war theme rings true, as only someone who has
lived in a war-torn region can emotionalize, solemnly rendered as a folkish,
pop-rock number. “Come On Down” grabbed me immediately, with it’s dramatic tale
of living with a drunken dad, parental pressure at home and sneaking down to
the basement for sex with Sally, the girl with purple hair. This is where the
grunge influence comes in with a heavy, buzz saw guitar. Another outstanding
song is an arrow-through-the-heart story of falling in love with a friend and
ending up the burned underdog. The melody really captures your attention and it
has elements of a Buzzcocks song, along with exquisite piano accompaniment. The
ballad “My Heart Is Yours Forever” was held up to Tom Petty as a comparison and
it features the honeyed-tones of a B3 organ coursing through. Things get pumped
up for the album stomper that features that B3, “Reach Out,” where Yusif really
lets loose on the high-end of his vocal range, to raging and emotional effect.
I got a real jolt of the Deadstring Brothers from “Sorry I Can’t,” a perfect
match for their sound back on the early albums.
I was prepared to not accept “Cosmic Symphony”
due to its comparison to Cat Stevens, but it really pulled me in and became a
favorite, as it also could as easily been an Anton Barbeau song with its
“Na-na-na’s.” The album ends with “Fools Know Better,” a sweet number that has
a melody that really implants itself deep in your brain. I found myself humming
the tune a lot for a few days.
The album is evenly balanced between rocking
pop numbers and heartfelt love songs that you recognize as based on experienced
pain, deep loneliness and always being the outsider wherever you go. Despite
all the setbacks in his early life, Yusif has emerged from the other side,
wiser, free-spirited and triumphant with this album, which richly deserves a
wide audience to take it all in and appreciate his challenging journey and how
he soldiered on through to a personal victory.
is currently on a U.S. tour through early November. Itinerary: http://www.yusifmusic.com/frame.html