Approachable helping of anthemic rock’n’roll, as 21st-century sounds mix with old-school touches.
Scratch below the surface of the well-known players on the one hand and the clamoring wannabes on the other and rock’n’roll remains, to this day, a universe peopled by any number of obscure toilers, many of whom have found a way of making it work for years on end. There are far more fully-formed characters out there on American stages than seems possible, or maybe even advisable.
Thirty-nine-year-old Mark Mallman is one of them. Emerging on the Minneapolis music scene in the late ’90s as part of a short-lived glam-rock parody band called The Odd, Mallman has been an eccentric and persistent presence there ever since, complete with wacky stage antics (playing keyboard solos in mid-air) and shticky concepts (onstage alter-ego: werewolf). Through the ’00s, he achieved a bit of notoriety for a series of unnaturally long concerts/performances he has given—so-called “Marathons” that have ranged in length from 26 to 78 hours. His most recent Marathon, number four, was done on the road in a van last month, involving 150 hours of non-stop music. I get press releases about such things and toss them in my “gimmick” folder. Ho hum. Then I actually thought to listen to the song. And well now. “Double Silhouette” is an easily approachable helping of anthemic rock’n’roll, mixing 21st-century sounds with some ineffable old-school touches—those deep chimes in the background feel inexplicably nostalgic, as do some of his vocal quirks (he’s channeling somebody there when he sings “Where everything is black and white” at 0:45, I just can’t put my finger on whom). I’m enjoying too his penchant for epigrammatic lyrics (“Nobody dies in nightmares/So I guess I must be living the dream”; “Won’t you join me on my road to ruin/’Cause it’s the only thing left worth pursuin'”; etc.); contemporary indie rock can surely do with a bit less obscurantism than we’ve been getting over the last decade.
“Double Silhouette” is the title track to Mallman’s new album, which will be released next week on Eagle’s Golden Tooth Records. It’s his seventh solo release; he has also recorded two albums with a band called Ruby Isle, in 2008 and 2010. In addition to “Double Sihoulette,” Mallman currently has five other songs of his available for download on his web site.
The theatrical Palmer here draws from the showy end of the new wave era, creating anthemic 21st-century rock’n’roll in the process.
There are those who love each and every thing Amanda Palmer does, and every word that flows from her mouth and/or fingertips, and there are enough such people to have allowed her to smash all sorts of internet records when she raised a gazillion dollars on Kickstarter recently. And then there are people like me, who are inclined to be standoffish in the face of such extroverted theatrics. There’s only one minor problem with this formula. Amanda Palmer knows how to write music, and how to deliver it. I’d be dumb to ignore her just because I’m an introvert and/or social media skeptic. She is an undeniable talent, and still exploring her limits.
This actually has a lot to do with why her model of mega-fan-engagement and digital self-exposure may not in fact be transferable or even helpful to others. Few indie artists have her multifaceted chops. Case in point: “Want It Back,” with its electro-orchestral intro, its bigass beat, its simple, unstoppable melody, and its casual but carefully built soundscape. At the center of it all is Palmer’s stagy presentation, rooted in her commanding voice and adroit way with words, especially in terms of how they sound and scan in a song. Yes, she’s got all that “punk cabaret” cred but the real power, I feel, comes from how well she draws from the showy end of the new wave era (think Lene Lovich, or Adam Ant) and funnels it into keenly crafted anthemic 21st-century rock’n’roll. I may never feel that comfortable in the midst of the crowd-sourced, share-a-thon currently passing for normal in the digital world, but a good song is a good song, and I’m delighted to listen and, um, share.
“Want It Back” is one of two songs Palmer has released early from an album due out in September (the other, also worth hearing, is available for an email address via her web site). The album, entitled Theater is Evil, is part of a large-scale release strategy, including a companion art book and a multi-faceted tour, that was made possible in part by her million-dollar crowd-funding effort (about which more here). Palmer has been previously featured on Fingertips in 2008, and also in 2004 as part of the Dresden Dolls.
photo credit: Kyle Cassidy
With a dense one-two beat, a tumble of words that sound concrete but don’t tell us much of anything, and no introduction whatsoever, “Take Care” foists itself upon the listener without warning, and takes a while to make musical sense.
But the chorus’ll hook you in, I think. The song is still driving fuzzily along, but a grand, anthemic melody rises up in the midst of the chugging fuzz, like the sun breaking through on a stormy day. Or, at least, it stopping raining a bit. Almost perversely, the chorus happens the first time without any lyrics (starting at 0:36), a wash of shimmering noise serving as the tune; you have to wait for it to come back again to get the full effect (at 1:29). With words, the clarity and (dare I suggest) beauty of the melody is revealed, if a bit coyly—those extended pauses between lyrical lines keep everything a bit off-balance, even in the midst of the grandness, while Noel Heroux sings, among other things, “This is not the song/That I want to sing,” then offers the titular phrase as almost an afterthought, providing modulation to the bridge more than anything else. But, talk about grand: get a load of that prog-rock-y instrumental break which starts at 2:18, complete with what sounds like a choir of heavenly voices in the distance. From here, “Take Care” takes off on pure inventive energy, revisiting the chorus with a variety of accompaniment schemes, acquiring an almost majestic momentum as we are led at long last back to the “When I take care” lyric, which now, repeated, sounds like a triumphant realization.
Hooray For Earth is a quartet with three of four members based in Boston, one in NYC. The roots of the band go back some ten years, when bassist Chris Principe and singer/guitarist Heroux were in a high school group together. Hooray For Earth’s current formation was finalized in 2004. The band issued a self-released debut CD in 2006 without any national distribution; with some updating and remixing, the album was re-issued this fall, digitally, on Dopamine Records; the physical CD will be released in January.
“Tall Trees” – Matt Mays & El Torpedo
Driving, slashing Neil Youngish guitars leap into action here, but listen, at the same time, to the thoughtful melody and, best of all, to the off-the-beat octave harmonies that wrap up the verse with the repeated refrain “Tall trees hanging over the road.” I love the combination of heaviness and lightness that we get as a result, all the more delightful coming from a group called Matt Mays & El Torpedo. The deftness on display is—dare I say—charming.
Here in the midst of an indie-rock dominated decade, “Tall Trees” sounds like little of what we’re used to finding and sharing in the music blogosphere. This isn’t quirky, except maybe to the extent that not being quirky is its own sort of quirk by 2008. I’m hearing Bruce Springsteen in and around this ingratiating song—not in an obvious homage (a la Neon Bible) but in the succinct, road-friendly songwriting and, especially, in Mays’ ability to sound at once weary and inspired in that gruff, everyman way of his. And hm maybe on repeated listen there is a bit of a direct homage going on; check out the early bridge (1:12 to 1:26) and see if you don’t pick up a taste of something from one of the Boss’s first three or four albums (“She’s the One,” maybe?). I like this.
Matt Mays & El Torpedo is, as luck would have it, another quintet from Canada—Halifax this time. “Tall Trees” is a song from Terminal Romance, the group’s second CD, which was released on Sonic Records in July. Mays himself two releases as a solo artist as well.