This Week: Dieselhed's earnest kitsch, a forgotten classic, and the beauty of Low.
Chico and the Flute (Bong Load)
Listening to a Dieselhed record is a lot like watching Iron Chef on the cooking channel. Just as the Japanese have brilliantly, and somewhat incomprehensibly, managed to combine the gourmet cooking show with elements of American pro wrestling and the game show glitter of The Price is Right, Dieselhed manages on a consistent basis to successfully quilt together irreconcilable bits of American popular music into a pastiche that is uniquely, bizarrely their own.
Chico and the Flute, their newest outing, is no exception. Quite simply, this record is impossible to pin down. The album veers from a sort of deadpan, schlocky lite rock ("Starting All Over") to the indescribable, surreal "Marlboro Man," on which the band blends country harmonies and a syncopated trombone line into a funky, sing-along hook. It's a hook that shouldn't work, according to traditional pop terms: with utter sincerity, guitarist Virgil Shaw croons, "Who's gonna brush your teeth tonight/ Marlboro Man in fluorescent lights/ The rain's coming down like diamonds." It's nonsensical and metrically irregular, but oddly compelling.
It could be argued that the band's making some sort of statement about the kitsch value of pop musicthat music listeners have been programmed to respond in certain ways to musical tropes that have been devoid of any real emotional significance for years. But that argument would ignore the blue-collar honesty and the charming, gentle humor of songs like "Tidepool," a song whose lyrics conflate the difficulty of laying down hardwood floor and the tribulations of a rocky romance.
Whether they're writing a song about an unexpected encounter with loaded brownies (on "Brownie"), or they're examining the grotesque aspects of the Lotto-obsessed (on "Gentle Grooming"), Dieselhed is genuinely concerned with the addled, often surreal nature of the commonplace.
Inscrutable or not, in the end Chico and the Flute is a hell of a lot of fun to puzzle out, with a collection of hooks that you'll be humming for months. And that's all that really matters, isn't it, folks?
Underwater Moonlight (Matador)
Twenty-one years is a long time to wait for deserved and real recognition, but that's exactly how long it's been since the Soft Boys (Robyn Hitchcock is the one member you've probably heard of) first laid their Underwater Moonlight eggs under the skin of a shifting and agitated music world.
Stranded on an island between punk rock's fading fury and new wave's first swell, the Soft Boys sported an obvious fondness for psychedelic sonnets (try "I Got the Hots" "here I am / looking out at the crystal world / floating currents of human eyes / baking land under creamy skies" on for size) and an all around Syd Barrett-ian weirdness that wrestled madly with their urge to make (or mock) classic Beatlesque pop music.
After two decades Matador Records is attempting to give this lost classic some kind of re-birth. Unfortunately, Matador has bloated this re-issue into a two-disc affair that stretches the exceptional moment of Underwater's 10 original tunes into an uncalled for excess. Such is life in the CD era. And that's not to complain about the quality of the songs because the nine tunes that follow the appropriate 10 on disc one are quite fine slabs of Hitchcock-ian warped pop (the second discouttakes and other slopis a little shaky in quality and probably only of cursory interest).
But the right and proper Underwater Moonlight deserves every bit of the admiration for its brief and brilliant original vision. Anything more is just, well, filler. And even though you've likely never heard/heard of the Soft Boys or Underwater Moonlight, don't mistake this as some heady rock-crit-hipper-than-thou love childthis record is flat-out good.
Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky)
I don't know whether Low's actually writing better songs these days or if I'm just more inclined to listen. I'm guessing the latter, considering that the Minnesota trio's basic templateslow, pretty, lilting, sad songshasn't changed much since their emergence in the mid-'90s. So now that older, sadder, wiser me has finally found the time and right frame of mind to appreciate their slow-core, low-core, whispery dream-fuzz rock, I'm glad they're still making it as well as they ever have.
Things We Lost in the Fire marks some slight evolution in their approach. There's a little more muscle ("July," "Dinosaur Act," and "In Metal" all have parts you could reasonably call loud), and they augment their guitar-bass-snare minimalism with swelling strings and organ hum. But there's the same gentle melodicism as before and the somber, sorrowful harmonizing of husband and wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker.
You don't need to know Sparhawk and Parker are Mormons to sense the sincerity and reserve in their stolid view of the world. You can't dance to this music, and they probably don't want you to. Still, for all the sadness and loss implied in the title and evoked in the songs, there is a certain kind of joy here. They know the world has plenty of beauty left, and just to prove it, they show you some.
Jesse Fox Mayshark
March 8, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 10
© 2001 Metro Pulse