Going Through Changes

A snapshot of the artist as a family man: Salim Nourallah, 35 years old, Coke-bottle glasses on a handsome face. A Beatles pin on the lapel of his Western-cut shirt. Scruffy hair, casually unshaven. He speaks passionately about his new role as a father, about three--three!--new recordings coming out in May, about a decade of huffing and hitchhiking the "art-rock highway," as he semi-jokingly calls it. Meanwhile, as we sit here, the first single from his solo album Polaroid, "1978," is being played in Abercrombie & Fitch stores across the country--which is kinda funny, because Nourallah would probably never be caught dead in a store once glorified by LFO. But still: Nourallah is filled with the excitement of it. He smiles, often.

It wasn't always like this. "If you looked at interviews with me in the Observer from 10 years ago, you'd find an extremely different picture," he says. "My brother and I were eaten up with frustration. We were miserable people, and we ended up being miserable to each other."

That was back when he was full of piss and brine, pounding out Clash- and Beatles-inspired rock and sending it straight into obscurity. Eventually, Salim collaborated with his younger brother Faris for a CD called Nourallah Brothers, a collection of meticulously crafted pop songs about childhood memories and assorted loss released by Western Vinyl in 2000. But soon after, the brothers parted ways--professionally and socially. Faris released a solo album, I Love Faris, and Salim found an outlet with The Happiness Factor, which married his tendency toward political rant with his love of a big, catchy pop sound. (He calls it his "anger management.") Their music flourished; their friendship did not.

But let's go back to "1978." The video for the song, a sunny, Paul McCartney-esque slice of nostalgia, will be filmed next week in Los Angeles by director Clark Jackson. It almost didn't happen, because Salim couldn't afford the plane ticket (the art-rock highway doesn't always cash out, you see). That's when Faris Nourallah stepped in. "He basically gave me a bass to sell on eBay," Salim says, beaming. "That sums up how well we're getting along with each other. Things have never been better for either one of us."

In fact, the two have agreed to record a second Nourallah Brothers record for Western Vinyl, which is also re-releasing the original album in the fall. Until then, Salim has three records coming out. (Three!) The first, Avoid Danger, is another installation from The Happiness Factor, a collection of cultural criticism you can actually dance to. The album comes out on Paisley Pop, also releasing a five-song solo EP called A Way to Your Heart, a collection of smart, upbeat love songs somewhat designed as an emotional complement to his somber solo full-length.

Which brings us to Polaroid. Coming out May 4 on Western Vinyl, Polaroid is a rather stunning dose of melancholia that returns to the brothers' finely drawn collaborations, dipping one toe in boyhood pain and the other in grown-up fears. "Watch you grow, fall down," Nourallah sings on the opener, "Everybody Wants to be Loved." "Don't despair, don't drown." It's poignant stuff, a photo book of dusty memories stacked with haunting harmony, but Nourallah leavens the mood throughout with lively instrumentation. Like "1978," which Western Vinyl placed in the aforementioned Abercrombie & Fitch outlets (so you know it can't be too dark). Or "Model Brothers," which features a zippy Casio keyboard.

"When I first started recording that song, it was so maudlin. Like, get over your sad self," he says. The song traces the brothers' topsy-turvy history, stretching from toddlerhood to the day Salim bought his first album--The White Album, on a whim--to the siblings' then-troubled relationship. "Now 34, and 32," he sings mournfully, "I can't remember when I last saw you."

Nourallah recorded the album, along with the others, in his own studio, Pleasantry Lane. "I've been distrustful of being a solo act," he says. "I love bands." But he found a different kind of collaboration working on his own. He called friends like Carter Albrecht, of Sparrows and Sorta. His buddy John Dufilho, of the Deathray Davies and I Love Math, filled in on drums. So did Faris.

"All three of these CDs have one thing in common, something I never thought I would say to someone, which is that I'm actually happy with all three," he says. "I never made a record that I didn't have some weird, cringing, knee-jerk reaction to. I thought I was going to have to be committed to an insane asylum because I could not make a record that I liked."

But that's a different picture. In this one, Salim Nourallah is happily married, happily ensconced in a community of artists and musicians, many of whom have been through what he dubs "the whole musical spin cycle." Mostly, though, he's just happy.

(Nourallah holds a CD release party at the Barley House on April 30. Chemistry Set and Rahim Quazi from OhNo! will be opening.)

"Something I Just Made Up" takes a break this week as we set out across town for an exhaustive survey of local music. More next week.
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Sarah Hepola