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Rock ’n’ roll has always had its fair share of quick-change artists. Some of these radical transformations, of course, are done for purely mercenary reasons. Some can be credited to boredom, a lack of self-confidence, or sheer smartassery. Others are the result of an inveterate restlessness—that irrepressible itch to strike the creative tents and move on.
Such is the case with Memphis, Tenn., native David Shouse, formerly of the Grifters and Those Bastard Souls and currently one half of Bloodthirsty Lovers. The Grifters, whose last album came out toward the end of the ’90s, were a gritty, rough-and-tumble lo-fi act, all jagged edges and bloozy bluster. Those Bastard Souls, also missing in action since the turn of the millennium, were basically more of the same—only rootsier. Bloodthirsty Lovers, however, are a very different cup of meat: cerebral rock formalists with a tendency toward the grandiose and a pronounced case of Anglophilia. As the band’s excellent sophomore release, The Delicate Seam, reveals, Shouse fits quite comfortably into his new role of polished progmeister, thank you very much. Far from coming off like a wide-eyed musical tourist, he sounds like a fellow who’s been pomp-rocking for eons.
Opener “The Mods Go Mad” promptly establishes the Lovers’ modus operandi: Shouse and bandmate Steve Selvidge (formerly of Big Ass Truck) are a distant pair, but they want you to want to close the distance. With its looping synths, ticking drum machine, and cryptic lyrics mixing techspeak (“The surface to air flow/Is waiting to take control of you”) with more personal concerns (“You’re my napalm/I’m your codeine”), the sound is cold and vaguely clinical. But its technological assuredness cloaks both yearning and hope: “Measure the sky/It’s yours for the taking,” sings Shouse, sounding for all the world like some psychedelic star child fallen to Earth circa 1967. “I am your landscape painting.”
“A Postcard From the Sea” is just as delicate, a jangled-up account of a road trip to nowhere that allows Shouse to wax Kerouackian. He picks up migrant workers and Army deserters, changes “tires and a.m. stations,” and watches his written but unsent postcards yellow on the dashboard. When he sings, “I’m headed ’cross country,” it’s with a certain jauntiness; he sounds a little lost but maybe like he likes it, too, because he’s got this theory about how “When blood and liquor mix together/It makes the restless dream.” A beautiful little tune about finding a sort of victory in defeat, this could have easily found a home on the last Shins disc—except that Shouse’s lyrics, y’know, make sense.
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“Stiltwalkers’ Local No. 199,” by contrast, stomps and lurches through Robert Pollard territory, goosed along by a big ol’ kick drum and a monster guitar riff that twists its way into your head like a dentist’s drill into molar. Shouse, meanwhile, oracularizes about time machines and overgrown tools: “It’s what the kids have waited for/Giant scissors marching forward/And the catcalls/Go unanswered after all.” Even more progtastic is “Now You Know,” which encompasses epic drum bash, more synths than you could shake Rick Wakeman at, and yet more titanic guitar work—over which Shouse delivers the timeless plea “Gimme drop dead rock & roll!” It’s a delirious bit of high-tech swagger proving that, though it may not make much ecological sense to use a bunch of state-of-the-art equipment for essentially the same task that Chuck Berry performed with only a guitar and a dinky amp, sometimes it just feels right.
Indeed, The Delicate Seam tries very hard to be a rock record, albeit a kinda screwy one. From the gotta-get-outta-this-place plot line of “Postcard” to the “Happiness is a mind-blowing experience” declaration of “Happiness,” the Lovers basically do their best to make rock ’n’ roll conventions sound unconventional. They pull it off most obviously with the louder stuff, which features enough textural and time changes for a Berklee seminar. But even the more relaxed numbers succeed. Take “Medicated,” which features Young People’s Katie Eastburn on vocals: Against a simple drum-machine beat, organ, and some beautifully sparse guitar-playing, she ever so slightly twangs her way though Shouse’s message, which is neatly encapsulated in the line “Don’t grow up jaded/Stay medicated.”
It’s the perfect album-closer, a sweet goodbye that sounds rootsy and straightforward enough to excite the Harp crowd. That is, until it abruptly left-turns into an absurdist Q&A period about five minutes in, with Eastburn doing the questioning and Shouse providing the answers: “So where have you been?/Out on the transit strike/Flipping off the wind/What’ll you have?/Two shots of sucker’s punch/In a bowl full of rats.” What’s it all mean? Only one thing for sure: For some Lovers, restlessness is healthy.
If Bloodthirsty Lovers prove that sometimes more can be more, Blanket Music demonstrates that, in some cases, less can be less. The Portland, Ore., band’s sound, like its name, is meant to evoke languorous winter Sundays spent drinking hot chocolate beneath the covers with a lover and the New York Times, and it’s certainly pleasant and lazy enough: Imagine an Americanized version of orchestral-period Belle and Sebastian, with more of a ’70s feel than a ’60s one.
The problem comes when you listen to the words that come out of singer Chad Crouch’s mouth. Like Randy Newman, Crouch specializes in first-person narratives. He’s by turns a fat kid, a computer gamester, a dollar-store manager, a soldier home from the front, and so on. But unlike Newman’s losers, Crouch’s have no interesting stories to tell. Nor is Crouch capable of illuminating the quotidian banality of his clichéd characters’ lives with any real flashes of insight. What you have, as a result, are too many songs about banality told banally, an insufferable combination unless the melodies are real keepers—which on Blanket Music’s new one, Cultural Norms, isn’t nearly often enough.
That said, a few of these songs sweep you along on an irresistible torrent of twee. Such is the case with opener “You Shouldn’t Have Said That,” an amusing and mock-menacing threat to rock critics (“You walk naked past the bands/You dissed so hard”) that moves happily along on a loping bass line and some perky guitar twang. Ditto for “Back to the Grind,” a relentlessly jaunty tale of reality-show contestants that would be brilliant if it didn’t sound exactly like what Belle and Sebastian were doing seven years ago.
Also worth a listening is the strange penultimate track, “Of Thee We Sing,” which somehow manages to be both annoyingly wearisome and exhilarating at the same time. A slow number that builds and builds and builds, it begins inauspiciously with Crouch nattering about “Electrons colliding, colluding atom” but eventually turns into a Whitmanesque hymn to, well, suffering humanity: “Crosses, white crosses, they vanish in rows/An essence, a pretense, educated guess, a wilderness.” The song evokes, simultaneously, Morrissey, Hefner, and a certain fat lady whose singing is supposed to signify the end of the proverbial ballgame; the tune wins in the bottom of the ninth by dint of sheer weirdness.
Too bad the solicitude for the human condition it exhibits is nowhere to be found in the tales of ordinary sadness that are “I’m Fat” (“If I won a million bucks I’d get a gastric bypass”), “Filesharer’s Lament” (“I haven’t heard it but maybe it’s good”), “A Soldier’s Story” (“Haven’t seen action and I don’t care to”), and so many others. Wandering through Crouch’s portrait gallery of average people doing average things, you grab hold of whatever you can: the catchy chorus of “Keep the Prices Down!,” for example, or the happy-go-lucky Charlie Brown piano runs that punctuate closer “Digital Pedestrians.” It’s not much, but as Crouch would no doubt argue, that’s the way of all flesh. Granted. But as Cultural Norms’ better songs demonstrate, it never hurts to throw in some flash, too.CP