Friday, November 9, 2007

It's a Fine Line Between the Monkey and the Robot

As much fun as a song about zombies or pirates or robots or some other hipster hullaballoo can be, the line between "good, catchy indie-pop song" and "kitschy novelty track that won't be listened to again after three weeks" is a fine one. The Besties "Prison Song" takes the title and turns it into a sad but poppy letter on separation and longing. "Zombie Song" takes male/female vocals and a killer chorus down a dead end road of a song that you only follow on Halloween and when in discussions about zombies. These are the "I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness" of songs, where all of the creativity went into the concept and the execution kind of sucks. Given the rather dicey risks that these sort of songs face, Tullycraft's Every Scene Needs a Center is all the more remarkable.

In the broadest strokes, this is an astonishingly catchy series of songs that seem written for mixtapes and movies. From the character portraits (Georgette Plays a Goth, One Essex Girl) to the mini-stories (The Punks are Writing Love Songs, Dracula Screams of Tiger Style, If You Take Away the Makeup Then the Vampires They Will Die) to the meta-scene commentary (Bored to Hear Your Heart Still Breaks, We Know You're Cute You Told Us), the pop sensibility of this story packed CD would almost be overwhelming if it weren't so well paced an album. "The Lonely Life of a UFO Researcher" might not be the best song on the album, but its half-whispered, searching vocals are the best way to split the scene epic of Dracula-as-rock-star that comes before it and the stellar, upbeat "A Cursed Miss Maybellene" that follows.

It isn't that much of an accomplishment to find a song that can fit a theme so well - there's enough music out there that you'll find any number of songs about aliens, lovelorn punks, or goth girls named Georgette - but Tullycraft is remarkable in that their strength is highlighted in their quirk. The weak points on the album are not where they stretch the kitsch factor too far or too awkwardly, but where their efforts at generically universal, second person narratives fall short of their emotional mark. The arpeggio that opens "Misgiving" has all the stark simplicity of a Minutemen song, but it quickly pairs the sugary sweet vocals with borderline-adolescent "omg relationships" lyrics with a schoolyard melody. Opinion is probably split on "One Essex Girl," but I like the equivocally sympathetic character sketch and unrepetant anglicisms, especially when it's paired with the sort of paint-by-number guitar solo that has you involuntarily singing along with the melody before you realize there aren't any words to go along with it.

More than anything though, "Essex" shows just how good Tullycraft can be when they focus their writing on, well, stuff. Once freed from the gymnastics of universally identifiable songwriting, they're on their game and it's beautiful. Phrasing pulls couplets together, melodies cascade into other melodies which cascade into still more, backing vocals slide in to harmonize in the gaps, and there are handclaps. And really, if there were only handclaps, it would have been enough.

The high point of all this skill and hand-clappery is most definitely the late arriving indie pop masterpiece "If You Take Away the Make-Up (Then the Vampires They Will Die)," which is also the reason why pick up a Tullycraft CD: one minute and forty three seconds of tambourines, handclaps, harmonicas, "aaahhh"s, and awesome. The group chant-a-long chorus begs you to sing along until the lead carries on with the story.

The strength of these songs doesn't come from their being so particular as to preclude identification with them. On the contrary, what makes them so good is that they can be identified with, albeit in spurts. Whereas songs like "Misgiving" substitute cliche for invention and are written so broadly as to make them blank canvases for whoever is hearing them, the realist detail of the topical lyricism, when paired with great music, will have far more emotional resonance.

We caught the first bus out of memphis
stood in line like we were dead
and with a boarding pass in one hand
you looked up at me and said
without the Revlon Girls of Macy's
Peter Murphy won't survive

I wasn't there, but I think I might know what he was getting at.

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