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A famous British band from the ’90s—sadly, I had to take a vow never to identify it when a member of the group told me the story—was scheduled to appear on the BBC chart show Top of the Pops. The singer had a great idea: “Let’s all wear black T-shirts and black jeans.” It would look tough, he argued. The band went along with it, but on the ride to the Beeb’s studios, the singer kept his jacket zipped up all the way—which the other fellows thought was odd. Once they made it to the stage to mime their hit, the singer ’fessed up: Seems he’d “forgotten” his black T and was wearing a bright-red one instead. During the telecast, he stood out quite nicely.
It’s one of the great inequities of rock ’n’ roll that the singer might as well be the band to all but the most ardent fans. It’s also exactly why Davey von Bohlen’s career arc is such a mystery. Like the other three guys in his best-known band, Milwaukee’s now-defunct emo outfit the Promise Ring, he seemed dwarfed by the group’s mammoth pop songs. Von Bohlen was the singer, yes, but he was also almost a piece of machinery: The tunes on, say, 1999’s Very Emergency were so well-crafted that it wasn’t hard to imagine the band regenerating personnel, T2-style, if a mere human unexpectedly dropped out.
And yet that vanishing act made von Bohlen kind of compelling. What kind of frontman willingly steps behind his material or wears the same shirt as the other guys? Well, the kind in the Promise Ring—until the band signed to Epitaph and went to England to record with Smiths producer Stephen Street. Suddenly, von Bohlen was out front, wondering aloud what would happen if he just stopped playing guitar and did more important stuff with his life. Old fans stayed away from that record, 2002’s Wood/Water, en masse; potential new ones found Saves the Day instead. The Promise Ring did the right thing and broke up.
Von Bohlen made a slightly less indifferent record with his side project, Vermont, but has been silent for the two years since. Apparently, he wasn’t just sitting around and wondering where it all went wrong. Or perhaps he was: Maritime’s new Glass Floor, von Bohlen’s overdue return to the racks, is, musically at least, everything Wood/Water wanted to be but wasn’t. J. Robbins’ production shimmers like one of James Brown’s capes. Ring cohort Dan Didier plays drums; the Dismemberment Plan’s Eric Axelson plays bass; Tsunami’s Amy Domingues contributes cello. The sound is breezy and peppy guitar rock, often summoning such avatars of ’80s indie as Aztec Camera and the Style Council—minus that damn organ, of course.
In other words, we’re listening again, Davey. The orchestra is tuned. The audience is chanting your name. And as you take the stage, you bust out a song about…how you “want to get lost in my life and letters”?!
Have you learned nothing in all these years? Well, maybe a thing or two: Occasionally on Glass Floor, von Bohlen evinces a sense of humor about himself that recalls the Smiths influence that drove him to Street in the first place. “We’re dressing up and dining in,” he sings on “King of Doves,” apologetically adding, “It’s who I am.” Mostly, though, he stays firmly in the realm of elliptical musings along the lines of “Air is the ghost of blood” (from “Human Beings”) and “We’re all staring at the flies/They’re all dying to get inside” (from “The Window Is the Door”).
Sometimes this approach works beautifully, as on the narcolepsy anthem “Sleep Around,” which sports a laziness-saluting chorus you can’t help singing along to. Or “James,” which is almost a Morrissey song, with von Bohlen asking a friend if he’s “gone to pasture” and whipping off sharp lyrics such as “[Y]ou feel numb/Honey, it’s been done.”
Elsewhere, however, the songs are as underwhelming as von Bohlen’s daily life—or at least the parts he chooses to share with us. He watches people smoking, marvels at how he consistently manages to lose his belongings, walks home from bars. It’s the kind of navel-gazing that can occasionally yield insights—for instance, that the eponymous wastrel of “James” will go to “any length to feel like you felt yesterday.” But more often than not, von Bohlen settles for gee-whiz observations such as “[A]ll my clothes get strewn about/…who really owns the floor?” Thanks.
The band, meanwhile, is unnaturally tight for what seems to have begun as a studio project. And even when it isn’t, Axelson singlehandedly manages to put such songs as the Dismemberment Plan–like “Human Beings” and the sprightly “Someone Has to Die” under a groove. Too bad, then, that the combination of von Bohlen’s timid tenor and willful obliqueness proves deadly. He’s way out in front, it seems, of nothing at all.
Tim Kasher, the Good Life’s vocalist, makes for an interesting contrast with von Bohlen. He’s also the singer of Cursive, which, like the Promise Ring, is often called an emo group—even though, to me anyway, it usually manages to convey almost no emotion at all. In Cursive, the subject matter—Kasher’s divorce, for example—is real, raw, and sometimes devastating, true. But the orchestrated presentation tends to bury Kasher’s vocals behind the musical equivalent of bulletproof glass.
In the Good Life, though, the singer has suffered a different fate. Previous incarnations of this Omaha, Neb.–based Kasher side project were all a bit gimmicky, and they sounded like it: 2000’s Novena on a Nocturn was a home recording tarted up like a Depeche Mode album, and 2002’s Black Out was apparently an attempt to make the most bog-standard guitar-trio music ever—the kind of thing that makes, say, Pinebender sound appealing.
Not the new Lovers Need Lawyers, which offers this gleeful deconstruction of rock-band pomposity: “I’m not an artist, I’m an asshole without a job…/I’m not a writer, I’m a kid with a guitar/And a notebook of scattered thoughts.” Throughout the six-song EP, Kasher keeps pointing out that as a musician, his job is to make people want to come out and drink alcohol. Maybe he hates himself for doing it, or just hates his colleagues who haven’t noticed, but he sure seems to have fun taking his profession apart.
But what really makes Lovers Need Lawyers enjoyable is how out-in-front Kasher is. His voice rubbed bloody by romantic and economic failures, he’s got nothing to lose and is having a ball telling you about it. “Leaving Omaha,” for example, is a hilarious tale of his various attempts to quit his hometown: first for college, then on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Denver, then with desultory moves to Portland, Ore., and across the Missouri River to Iowa. “Sick on caffeine pills,” he recalls of one desperate late-night voyage to visit a fellow refugee. “My friend, he escaped from Omaha/I never will.”
The title track is a self-imposed deposition: Yes, I was drinking in the bar with a girl; yes, we got along; yes, we headed to Iowa—yes, again!—to drink more after closing time. And no, I didn’t cheat on you. “I could never take another’s hand” he assures his partner. “It’s to you I’m condemned.”
The Good Life is a proper band that plays muscular, polished indie rock, but its accomplishments fade next to Kasher’s humor and ragged-but-right pipes. What he seems to have figured out, and what I dearly hope Davey von Bohlen realizes soon, is that we want the singer to stick out like a sore thumb. Screw the other people in the band, gentlemen: The red shirt is yours for the taking.CP