John Davis is back and he’s as disenchanted as ever, but now his music is sounding a lot more like he feels.
Let’s rewind: Davis’ post-Q and Not U output includes Places (2007) by Georgie James, his collaboration with pianist and singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn; and It Was Easy (2010), the first work from Title Tracks, for which he recorded almost every instrument. Those albums are plenty unsettled, being focused on romantic discord, but their poppy, singalong approaches could convince anyone not listening too closely that they contain nothing but happy-go-lucky love songs.
Title Tracks’ latest is called In Blank, and it’s inhabited by paranoid, discontented souls, stuck in their own heads and in malignant relationships. “Time is the sound of a torn page/Everything goes away/You may have a handle on your quiet rage/ But everything goes away,” begins opener “Shaking Hands,” and things get bleaker from there. Davis’ characters fight personal demons and admit to dangerous co-dependencies; “Mine is the kind of knife/That won’t cut you free,” he sings on “Light Sleepers.” Hardly a track passes without dark moments, with the possible exception of “I Can’t Hide,” a cover of a romantic Flamin’ Groovies’ song originally called “Second Cousin.” (Make what you will of that.)
These themes aren’t anything new for John Davis, but the sounds—recorded this time with his band, and mixed in mono—certainly are. He’s ratcheted up the tempo, spitting his words so quickly you’ll be lost without a lyric sheet. This is a shame, as he’s a rare rock musician whose stanzas would work well as poetry. Nevertheless, the record seems to make more and more sense after repeated listens, and the pacing ultimately feels appropriate for characters on the verge of coming undone. Davis toyed with punk idioms in Q and Not U, and this album takes on the genre’s character at times, at least in its breakneck speed and failure to mince words.
But its unembellished aesthetic can also be melodic and literary. There are no horns and few keys, mostly just clanging guitars, efficient drums, and Davis’ sweet vocals. Songs like “Shaking Hands,” “Light Sleepers,” and “No Air” are catchy earworms, and you may find yourself repeating lines like “There’s no strange in your estrangement/There’s no sight inside of you” without being quite sure what you’re saying. Davis’ angst can be hard to relate to, of course, but he should be commended for continuing to speak his uneasy mind, and for evolving his sound into something as brusque as his themes.