Monday, June 16, 2008

The Opposite of Hallelujah

I remember back about five years, the first time I heard a Jens Lekman record, wishing like hell that I was going through a good messy breakup. It didn't make sense enjoying his songs while feeling stitched up right.

Well, if the genie is to believed I still have two wishes left.

Jens Lekman has been a foil through this most recent parting-of-ways--I'll admit it's been a soft one. I'm still not entirely sure a turbulence so mild and warm even warrants this kind of indulgence, but they say I shouldn't postpone joy.

Lekman's appeal is like that of the Smiths to many thirty-somethings, or The Magnetic Fields to twenty-eight-somethings (Stephin Merritt's voice is frequently compared to Lekman's.) Of course there is the class fayness he shares with Belle and Sebastian. But look to the broader arc, evident in his style and influences--as well in those of Phoenix via Todd Rundgren, latter-day Jamie Lidell by way of Squeeze, and one of my favorites, The Hidden Cameras via Motown(after seeing the last open a double bill at the Khyber with the progressive gunk-funk, Fiery Furnaces, I left after the Cameras, elated, saying, "that was my very first Marvelettes show!"). There is a triangulation of old soul faves with white guy intercedents. The Nick Lowe resurgence mounts.

In fact, like the best of his generation (I suppose like the best of any generation) Jens Lekman's charm lies in the finesse of his bedroom errors before the closet door mirror, hairbrush mic in hand. He owes a debt to the new wavers and British pub rockers of the late 70's and early 80's. He's clumsy, cliched, synthetic, plagiaristic, unheedingly philosophical, and often silly.

Our memories are so polluted with how these things can kill an otherwise stable talent that, from the outset, the list seems to form a prohibitive criticism. It doesn't. He's not the Barenaked Ladies.

Until I get that podcast working (it's coming, I swear!) you'll have to trust me to chew your food for you. Here's a rundown of some top Jens magic hour moments:

Julie-Try to imagine Paul Simon having written "Cecilia" after his South African pop awakening. Lavish Ladysmith Black Mambazo drums elevate this little name-ballad, and give the characteristic grandness to Lekman's childlike--almost moronic, romantic promises. Pay special attention to the hire/fire rhyme: it's a doozy.

A Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill-Unselfconsciously cool music doesn't get made much anymore. So this a kind of generational victory. Jens reminisces about "Regulate", with Warren G...back in the sweet summer of 1993. Little more than a snappy trumpet line, hand claps, and Jens' fond memories, the effect is so ethereal that it completely transcends the anachronistic beatnik vibe it gives off. The idea is that in fond memory all time is cool.

A Postcard to Nina-A fave among many fans, "Nina" is one of the strongest pieces of storytelling in the Jens Lekman songbook. Sung to a nouveau Isleys soul pop, the story follows our infatuated hero on an O Henry-like errand with his lesbian friend to her strict Catholic family's house where he must play the romantic beard. The father takes a shine to Jens, while tipping his hat to the ruse in play. Of course the real shenanigan is our hero's hopeless motive. Was it Seinfeld or George Plimpton who once lamented on dating gays, "they don't lose many players"?

A Little Lost-Like Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley five years ago, Arthur Russell is now one of the most misguidedly covered artists of the hipster canon. That said, Four Songs by Arthur Russell, a one-off made for Record Store Day 2008, is surprising in both the restraint and effect. Jens nails this daydreamy caprice, playing it close to Russell's original style, sparely arranged, with a sympathetic lilt in his throat. They're simple words and they grow ten times their natural size. Magic beans never grew so high.

Rocky Dennis' Farewell Song-Why would anyone gut the piano melody from Joe Jackson's "Breaking Us in Two" and use it to basically retell the based-on-a-true-story Cher vehicle, Mask? It's a reasonable question, because the premise of this song very much tries the nerves. But the tune is so spectacularly pathetic, and the lines are sterling: Mama told me I was born a lion/Mama told me I was born with a belly to lie on. I'm way over the Apatow-derived pop-culture as comic relief device, but the depth of Lekman's internalization outstrips the easy payoff you might expect.

Black Cab-With its strident, amateurishly miked strings it could easily be passed off as the 70th Love Song in the Magnetic Fields' cycle, were it not for Jens' unironic glee. Add some manic panic rhythm guitar color-notes from The Cure's Wish, and you have, well, a pretty stealthy dirge. I'd put this one on my funeral program.

Pocketful of Money-If you need a formula for this stuff here it is. Start slow, schmaltzy, and solipsistic, maybe borrow a walking-around storyline from John Lee Hooker. Next you're going to want to cool off the adoring eyes you've attracted. Easy enough. Enter a bassy group of doo-wop back-up singers (in the cloying caricature model of Zappa/Mothers). Last, let the moronic fire/fire rhyme scheme rub til it soothes. Won't take long, actually.

The Opposite of Hallelujah-Jens reads Catcher in the Rye with notes from Phil Spector on the business of disguising tears. It's a deceptively jolly number, and the marvels of youth lie at the center. Trouble-minded older brother chaperones kid sister, imparting faulty wisdom and embarrassing truths along the way: You still think I'm someone to look up to / I still don't know anything about you. It's puerile, but something in soul music puts us in the mood to forgive. Besides, like its author, this hero is just a kid in many ways...

1 comment:

blackmail is my life said...

I may never care for Lekman, but this was really wonderful. I'm glad you're writing again publicly!