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The album Weak Beats and Lame-Ass Rhymes contains neither, but the irony in titling a thoughtful folk-accented collection as if it were an old-school hiphop disc says a lot about Tim Foljahn, the Hoboken songwriter who records under the name Two Dollar Guitar.
Foljahn oozes New York scenester cred—and the attitude that comes with it. He has backed Thurston Moore, often plays in Chan Marshall’s Cat Power, and has Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley as his drummer. Shelley even releases his own records. Attitude-wise, meanwhile, Foljahn has reinvented himself as the hip balladeer, swapping lonesome cowboy with equally bleak denizen of Lower East Side cultural pastiche. Thus, the odd hiphop reference makes sense, even though the record shares more with Leonard Cohen than it does with Boogie Down Productions.
Not entirely a solo project thanks to the presence of Shelley and bassist Dave Motamed, along with various guest musicians, Two Dollar Guitar nonetheless revolves around Foljahn, who imbues every track with the personal feel of a solo artist. That quality gives Weak Beats its strength: Foljahn’s songwriting flourishes in an intimate ambiance created by the kinds of subtle recording and performance touches typically associated with solo projects.
It takes a few listens for Weak Beats to become likable. Foljahn’s no hack, but his songwriting lacks such obvious qualities as bright pop hooks, incisive lyrics, or gripping vocals. Instead, he banks on writing and arrangement that bridge the space between carefully manipulating and haphazardly charming the listener. Two Dollar Guitar sounds professional without losing any grit, spontaneous without sacrificing arrangement.
Not that it’s all nontraditional. The album’s 10 songs revolve around a typical guitar-bass-drums axis, with an emphasis on minimized recording effects. Foljahn’s guitar often hums with distortion, but it’s that brilliant-sounding kind that comes from pushing a great amplifier just a little bit. The tones have just a touch of electric crackle, so you can hear all six strings when he hits a folk chord. Engineer-producer Luc Suer deserves credit for keeping the ambiance stripped-down. Not that Two Dollar Guitar had the budget for fancy effects, anyway: It seems to bank on being heard live, not as a studio-only project.
“Bozo Shoes” makes this point. The gentle guitar at the beginning is joined by odd bells and tinkling that subtly pan from side to side. Anything more would be in the way by the time Carla Bozulich’s voice harmonizes with Foljahn’s deep, laconic vocals. Singing about various kinds of criminal mischief on “Wilding,” Foljahn riffs over Shelley and Motamed’s midtempo rhythms like a real-life bluesman. It’s the best moment on the record: The quiet sirens and wind effects were done well enough that I kept lifting my headphones to discern if they were recorded, or just background to a cold winter night in Mount Pleasant.
Even the occasional drum-machine beat sounds organic in Foljahn’s musical vision on “Pink & Green” and “White Ape.” Shelley’s processional drumming anchors the song after a while, but it’s really Foljahn’s guitar that makes this one go. After establishing a catchy progression with the bass, he breaks into a part that’s more melody line than solo, but still grabs nicely.
On “Pink & Green,” the drum-machine beat lingers through Foljahn and Christina Rosenvinge’s competing vocal lines. Rosenvinge, a Spanish songwriter, has a voice that ensures it isn’t much of a contest. Her range and timbre outclass Foljahn’s, but he deserves props for using her anyway; she elevates a middling song with a voice far richer than those usually heard on underground rock records.
Rosenvinge is also highlighted on “Green Room,” an upbeat little ditty that jumps with her charisma and ability to scale down notes effortlessly. The track, in fact, shows Two Dollar Guitar at its most bandlike. Without Foljahn singing, the group seems to play more as a unit. Though there’s a country reverb guitar solo from guest guitarist Smokey Hormel, “Green Room” is stripped of any annoying Lower-East-Side-hipsters-trying-for-Hank-Williams-Sr. by Rosenvinge’s performance. Plus, it’s just a good country song.
Shelley’s work with Sonic Youth has taught him a thing or two about where to put each drum part, as evidenced throughout Weak Beats. Not exactly a technical maven, Shelley lends a new credibility to the old cliche that “it’s the notes he didn’t play.” The drums anchor and even occasionally propel the action, but they don’t interfere with Foljahn’s songs. On those moments when the album conveys the sense that some rockin’s about to happen, the message doesn’t spring from the drums. Instead, they complement the band’s other moves.
Foljahn also deserves credit for blending a touch of No Wave guitar experimentation with his dapper songwriting. “Stones vs. Zep” may start off like the rest of this record, but it builds with a repetitive guitar strum that borders on the atonal stylings Shelley’s bandmates in Sonic Youth helped popularize. A little distortion even rears up with a climax that hits with both guitar crescendo and deft song structure.
Weak Beats ends with the pointed “Everybody’s in a Band,” an ironic take on hipster credibility. Foljahn’s deep-voiced singing references various artistic endeavors, sounding both wistful and game. It’s a slow song and, like most of the rest of them, sparsely layered with every instrument, making a noticeable yet subtle contribution.
While nothing on Weak Beats will get Foljahn billed as a genius in the Leonard Cohen/Nick Cave vein of balladeering and songwriting, he’s made a nice contribution to the genre. The songs deliver more than just some promise; they document a talented songwriter establishing his credentials as a thoughtful artist. It’s a perfect soundtrack to certain lonely moments. CP
Two Dollar Guitar performs Feb. 10 at the Black Cat.