Monday, November 16, 2015

Album Review: Au Pair - One Armed Candy Bear

One of the important names in music, if you're a fan of honest and melodic pop/rock music, that often gets overlooked is that of Gary Louris. As one of the dual frontmen of The Jayhawks, he was responsible for helping create the incontrovertibly masterful "Hollywood Town Hall". But what gets lost is that when the band lost their other frontman, and the one who made bigger waves in the country and folk scenes, Gary continued forward, making music that was more interesting, even if it wasn't getting the same attention. The trials and tribulations of that relationship might have made the idea of once again forming a collaborative creative enterprise a risky proposition, but here we find Gary teamed up with Django Haskins of The Old Ceremony, putting together an album that bears the familiar hallmarks.

The singers' blended voices open up "In Every Window", which is the kind of simple song that I often wonder about. It's a subtle little pop nugget, but the melody is so sweet that it amazes me how more people aren't trying to make this kind of music, and that it isn't the least bit popular. The Zappa-esque guitar freakout might play a part in that, but power-pop done well is a rare commodity, one that gets mined from the ground by only those who know where to look, brought to market at an exorbitant price to be paid by those of us who cherish the beauty of melody.

The sparse arrangements are a wise decision, as a bare-bones song like "One Eyed Crier" uses that space to let the tandem vocals hang in the air, lingering after each note like a ghost. For being so simple, the song is deceptive in that you have to pay close attention to pry the melody out of the backdrop. This isn't the kind of music you can absorb while texting emojis to your friends. To fully embrace the songs, you need to hear them, and to hear them, you need to focus.

But if you think you know what you're getting from this record, you don't. The title track is playful, with lyrics about how the "one-armed candy bear is going to take what he wants to, he says possession is nineteen tenths of the law", but its sung over scuzzy guitars that buzz like dust in the grooves of a 1970s Krautrock record.

What impresses me is that they're able to turn from a bleak ballad in "Night Falls Down", and go right into a Beatles-esque number like "Middle Distance", and not only do the songs feel like they go together, but they're both equally adept.

That's not to say the record is perfect. It does lose steam in the middle, before picking up again at the end, because the sonic palate is a bit too drab. The echoing percussion lends itself to a dark sound, but the issue is that the acoustic guitars are recorded in such a way that they sound flat, almost as if they strings on them were long dead. There's very little high-end bite, and even when a few electric guitars add texture, they do so without much punch. There needs to be a bit more life to the actual sound, because a record that's under forty minutes shouldn't feel like it's long, but that happens a bit here.

But production issues don't detract from the songs themselves, and what we have here is an oddly named collection of songs that are perfect for waiting out a cold, damp Autumn day. I don't know if these are the kinds of songs that are going to hit hard enough to etch themselves onto me, but I do know that "One Armed Candy Bear" is a record that's eminently enjoyable to put on. Sure, it's not as close to The Jayhawk's "Rainy Day Music" as I was hoping for, but there's a new Jayhawks album in the pipeline, so this is a welcome diversion until then.

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