Because kids in 2007 aren't buying CDs like kids of yesteryear did, retailers like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Target are threatening to scale back their shelf space to stock only new releases from artists with proven sales. Not a big deal if you buy CDs on Amazon or iTunes, but hearing the drumbeat in the distance signaling the further marginalization of music as a commodity can't be viewed as anything but depressing.
The news has to be adversely affecting music journalist Ed Masley, who is also vocalist/guitarist of The Breakup Society. A Pittsburgh transplant now in his second year of Valley living, Masley's about to release a second scrumtrulescent Breakup Society album. Like anybody with an extensive knowledge of pop music minutiae, Masley writes about pop music (as he once did in these pages), but he also writes pop music about pop music.
While fronting the band The Frampton Brothers in the early '90s, Masley offered a running commentary on life as an indie band, with hilarious odes like "I'm in Love With the Label Rep," "She's Reading All the Wrong Fanzines (Again)," and "Dressing Room."
For his current band, The Breakup Society, Masley has written shrewd and sharp paeans to Robin Zander and Ronnie Spector, and the new, online-only "Song for George," which weighs in on the weird love triangle of George Harrison, Pattie Boyd, and Eric Clapton. (Sample vitriol: "If I'da fucked your wife, I think I'd have the decency not to write a hit about it.")
Masley comments on a lot of other life lessons weightier than those gleaned exclusively from rock 'n' roll. The title track of The Breakup Society's second album, Nobody Likes a Winner (Get Hip), suggests that even the people who wound up with all the toys can be sympathetic figures. Like its predecessor, James at 35, it's an album conceived to be digested as a whole, as arcane a notion as a song cycle may seem in a time when wholly conceived albums are on the endangered species list. That said, you've gotta love a guy who beams proudly that this new CD has a lyric sheet, and when was the last time you attempted even reading a CD insert without Palomar telescopic lenses?
"The unifying theme that ties together maybe half the songs is this sense of people being made to come to terms with where they are in life compared to where they might have hoped to be," Masley says. "And on Breakup Society records, as in life, not many people do that very well. So failure and success are major parts of that. Everyone's coping with one or the other, right? But what defines us, I think, is how we cope, not whether we succeed or fail."
"There's the guy in '13th Angry Man' who's real abusive to his wife because his life didn't work out the way he wanted it to, and the wife blames society for making him an asshole instead of just leaving him," Masley explains. "Or the guy in 'Hanging by a Thread,' who's obsessing over the bullies in high school who made his life miserable. I like to write about crybabies, for some reason. But I like to humanize them, too."
Then there's the album's centerpiece, "Failure Saved Me From Myself," which philosophizes that fame and fortune are all that's stopping everyone from being a monster who dines on rare endangered birds and has people destroyed for offering a dissenting word.
If you can imagine a version of Bruce Springsteen's The River fueled by Ray Davies' winking irony, well, you probably don't need to hear this or any album. The rest of you new to Masley's canon would do well to work backwards from the Frampton Brothers' last album, 1999's File Under F for Failure, for that is where the seeds of The Breakup Society took root.
"The Frampton Brothers didn't tour that much," Masley says with a laugh, "but we did a lot of ineffectual touring, like buying just the wrong van at just the right time. Bob Hoag [singer of The Go Reflex, producer/owner of Flying Blanket Studios and then a member of Pollen] was our drummer on our most splendidly ill-formed tour. We broke down in three places in Ohio, and we had a great show in Chicago that we couldn't get to, [and] a show in Champaign, Illinois, we couldn't get to. It was the first three nights of the tour and we couldn't get to them. Those kind of tours can be real damaging to a band."
So damaging, in fact, that the Frampton Brothers decided to call it quits after one such jaunt. After that, Masley conceived a solo project, James at 35, parodying the 1977 NBC drama James at 15. The overarching theme of Masley's looking back on tortured teen life through middle-aged eyes for a song cycle was a good one, but fears of looking too precious or autobiographical led him to release it under a group moniker.
"I just came up with this idea, mapped it all out, and really didn't want anyone messing with it, so I just invited two of the Frampton Brothers to play as my band," Masley says. "I'd never made a boy/girl record before. The Frampton Brothers albums would have, at most, one or two relationship songs because I'd find any excuse to write about relationships. But I wanted to make the big power-pop boy/girl album. I was very focused on that.
"By the time we'd finished the record, the Frampton Brothers had broken up, and I had decided I didn't want to release it as 'Ed Masley,'" Masley continues. "I think when you see someone's name on a record, it implies a certain type of music that this wasn't. That singer-songwriter thing — boring, earnest, non-rocking. So I came up with the name The Breakup Society. I liked the name because it sounded like a John Hughes film with Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy."
Before the critically acclaimed James at 35's release in 2004, Masley was still in Pittsburgh and assembled a band there to replicate what the Frampton players and Hoag played on record. The Pittsburgh lineup flew back and forth to Phoenix to record the follow-up at Hoag's studio. In March, the Breakup Society was invited to play at South by Southwest, and Masley was faced with the decision: Which Breakup Society does he take to the senior prom?
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"It's hard doing two bands. I don't recommend it," Masley says. "There's some tension with that, but any betrayal is a logistical one. It was practical to go to SXSW with a band I could practice with. I moved here and they didn't. I like to play in Pittsburgh. I worked years carving out a little niche there. I like having those guys to play with there. When we get together, it's like the Stones' sloppy greatest hits show, whereas with the Phoenix lineup here, we can learn new songs. I imagine it getting less awkward as time goes on. When I formed the Breakup Society, it was going to be me and whoever else happened to be in the room."
As for the immediate future, Masley rules out extensive touring with either lineup, but, he says, "I would like to play Europe. Get Hip has good distribution there. Couldn't there be some European musicians to back me up? Can't I go over like Chuck Berry with just my guitar and videotapes of employees peeing?"
He nudges the recorder. "That's off the record."
Sun., May 17, 7 p.m., 2009