The Negro Problem
Joys and Concerns
If there's a weakness surrounding L.A.'s recent pop renaissance, it's that too many of the bands settle for emulating their heroes, right down to the very last "c'mon, c'mon" and "sha-la-la." As transcendent as much of Badfinger and the Raspberries still sound today, when a current band gets too close to that model without adding anything to the equation, it runs the serious risk of anachronism; of seeming merely quaint.
Without question, L.A.'s infamously named The Negro Problem are an acquired taste. They're not as instantly pleasurable as peers like Baby Lemonade or Chewy Marble. And lead vox Stew (formerly Mark Stewart) often jams more words and ideas into his songs than they can comfortably bear. But even if you find TNP grating, you can't honestly say that they're quaint. Stew perpetually attaches topical concerns to the band's vintage, kaleidoscopic pop, as if to defy anyone to reduce his group to a nostalgia act.
TNP's self-released 1997 debut album, Post Minstrel Syndrome, had plenty of inspired moments, but it felt a bit undercooked, as though the band's severe budgetary restrictions kept them from attaining that lush Jimmy Webb-type of transcendence they were shooting for. Ultimately, it felt like a very promising demo for a record you might want to hear.
Two years later, TNP's still on a fairly low budget, but the new Joys and Concerns feels like a splash of vivid Technicolor next to Post Minstrel's black-and-white spareness. "Ahmnot Madatcha" (pronounced "I'm not mad at ya") is a giddy romp propelled by trumpets and flutes. The opening "Repulsion (Show Up Late for Work on Monday)" features a wonderfully incongruous banjo from Wondermints multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory.
Such sonic touches are typical of Joys and Concerns, which comes close to delivering on the implications of TNP's tentative first effort. For instance, on the moderately funky "Sea of Heat," the band achieves a tighter, more muscular sense of groovesmanship than anything they'd previously managed on record. Stew's earnest, husky voice can still be an odd match for the Association-like breeziness of some of his songs, but the enhanced richness of the group's new music (not to mention the prominent vocal harmonies) makes this bitter pill a bit easier to swallow.
On Joys and Concerns, Stew also tones down his penchant for arch social commentary and allows some heartfelt sensitivity to sneak into the picture. "Comikbuchland" is an odd but affecting ballad filled with childlike wonder, and "Bleed" is that rarest of species: an honest-to-goodness TNP ballad. "Comikbuchland" is also effectively revisited later in the album as a spiky New Wave rave-up.
Of course, Stew can't resist playing the smart ass for very long, and his pop-culture irreverence flowers in "Peter Jennings" (a fictional account of hanging out with ABC's news anchorman) and "Goode Tyme" (which explores the possibility that America's favorite male doll may be same-sex oriented).
The album is supposedly split along thematic lines: The first six songs represent "joys," while the next six represent "concerns." But it's one of the virtues of this album that such lines get blurred very quickly. On this album, TNP find concerns behind their most joyous moments and joy within their deepest concerns.
Look Now Look Again
It's hard to think of an album that gets as much mileage out of life's small, mundane details as Look Now Look Again, the sophomore full-length CD from Wisconsin trio Rainer Maria.
At its best, the album suggests a song cycle about the ups and downs of a typical day in the life. Singer/bassist Caithlin De Marrais consistently takes drab elements and finds a sense of wonder. She gazes longingly at the skyline, and bumps her head against her car's windshield. She fixates on yellow traffic lights and assesses her frustrations while driving her boyfriend home from work. Throughout, she shows a natural feel for the special minutiae of workaday life: "Cup of tea, blackberry, everything's alright now/Don't let me sleep."
The band's lyrics can often read like self-obsessed high school journal entries, but De Marrais has just the right way of putting them across. Her fragile wisp of a voice is pretty but flawed, to consistently good effect. If she occasionally threatens to slip out of tune (and once or twice makes good on the threat), such weaknesses just make her tunes more convincing and approachable.
The open-tuning guitar work of Kyle Fisher evokes Bedhead in the slower, dreamier passages and Jejune in the more propulsive moments. The group's virtues come together most strikingly on "Broken Radio," a song that uses a hooky, repetitive bass and droning guitars to build a powerful, off-kilter rocker.
The lyrics, seemingly about nothing more than a broken car radio and failing headlights, take on extra dimension in the final verse, when it becomes obvious that De Marrais is using the car as a metaphor for a relationship that's broken down: "We talk about the last time it felt right to make out/And I'm certain, if I drive into those trees/It'd make less of a mess than you've made of me."
De Marrais never fully resolves the ambivalence she feels over this relationship, in the same way that Rainer Maria never fully resolves the dichotomy between its punk fury and pastoral dreaminess. Here's hoping they never sort it all out.
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