Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Alex Dezen plays you his excellent version of the radio

February 8, 2017

Learning how to write in a genre can be a lifelong exploration, even for the most talented of musicians: Josh Ritter has made a whole career exploring the nooks and crannies of modern folk. The Mountain Goats spent a whole decade mastering the lo-fi recording before spending another 15 years doing indie-pop in tons of different styles. As a result of the difficulty and time required to be an expert in one genre, skepticism is warranted when an artist leaves their home genre for another.

This is an even more risky proposition when the target isn’t one new genre, but a multi-genre, broadly “pop” album. Yet despite these many cards stacked against Alex Dezen‘s second solo outing II, the former Damnwells frontman has created a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable album that dabbles in half-a-dozen pop genres. It’s proof of Dezen’s songwriting prowess that he’s not just great in one genre: he’s great in a bunch of them.

Dezen doesn’t try to hide that’s he indulging in any flight of fancy that comes his way: The album opens with “When You Give Up,” a Miami Vice-esque noir new wave tune. Dezen’s lithe voice shines here; not only could he sing the phone book and make it sound great, he could sing it in a wide variety of genres, as well. His knack for catchy melodies is on display everywhere, from the vocal melodies to acoustic guitar riffs to blocky synth blasts. “Holding on to You (Holding on to Me)” has more ’80s rock vibes–this time more Heart than Blondie (“Barracuda,” in particular). As ever, the chorus hook is polished till it glows–you’ll be mumbling “holdingontoyou / holdingontoME” for a long while afterwards.

From there on, Dezen goes in full-on world tour mode. “Randolph Tonight” is CCR-esque swamp rock; “I Am a Racist” is a straight-up doo-wop tune; “New York to Paradise” is a lost Billy Joel piano ballad; “Fuck or Fight” is an Eagles-style country-rock rambler. None of these songs feel insincere or mishandled; Dezen waltzes his way through each of them with a deft hand. It’s even more to his credit that he played almost every instrument on this album. It’s one thing to write a melody in a different genre, and it’s another thing entirely to have the chops on multiple instruments to pull off a whole arrangement in another genre.

My favorite tunes here are ones that pair excellent arrangements with incisive, carefully wrought lyrics. The REM jangle of “I Had a Band” relates anecdotes from a coming-of-age tale with the emotionally charged punch line “I never had much of a father / but I had a band / yeah, I had a band.” Anyone who’s been in a band will relate to the loving, wry tone that runs through the lyrics, whether or not your relationship with your father was great. IC had the distinct honor of premiering the Graceland-inspired “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” which has a thoughtful set of lyrics about people in the contemporary moment just trying to make it through. The acoustic closer “The Boys of Bummer” is a lovely song about people who write sad songs by a person who writes sad songs. The dignity with which the characters meander through the tune makes me think of The Hold Steady.

Because of the herculean effort Dezen expends on every track, the album is only 9 songs. Yet in those nine songs he creates his own personal version of the radio, putting his imprint on pop music. It’s a rare album that manages to pull off all that Dezen does here: this is a fully-realized album on “extra difficulty” mode. If you like pop music in any way, shape, or form, you need to hear this album. Highly recommended.

Ash Gray and Girls steal everything and make new songs out of it, much to the ears' delight

March 12, 2010

I’ve always enjoyed the name Pop Will Eat Itself. I’ve never heard a single song by them (although the tune “Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!” sounds awesome), but their name has been about as prophetic as MTV’s ominous and prescient first choice of music video. Pop certainly has started eating itself. Example: I had a yelling fight with a close relation over the fact that Imogen Heap, not Jason DeRulo, wrote the hook to DeRulo’s “Whatcha Say.” It was a low point in music history for me.

But DeRulo’s thievery (thievery, I say!) is different than Ash Gray and Girls’ reinventing of pop. They’re both eating pop music, but DeRulo’s not even chewing, while Ash Gray is messing the peas and mashed potatoes on the plate before it even gets to the mouth. Okay, enough with that analogy.

Ash Gray and Girls is a pop band that sounds a little bit like all of these people: Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Garth Brooks, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, America, Neil Young, the Clash, and the B-52s. There is absolutely nothing here that hasn’t been done before. But that doesn’t matter, because Ash Gray has taken all the pieces of pop music and put them together in odd ways. “Your Gun is Out” is the Clash playing with the B-52s singing. “Rock’n’Roll Record” sounds like Heart’s “Barracuda” being played by John Cougar Mellencamp. “Fire Away” sounds like Garth Brooks fronted by Neil Young. These are all great songs.

The only thing holding these tunes together is Ash Gray’s acoustic guitar, which is almost omnipresent, and a bright tone to all of the proceedings. There are also plenty of female backup vocals (I assume these are Girls of the band name).  There’s only seven songs on This Could Be a Wild Night, but each is its own adventure, from a face-melting guitar solo (“Fire Away”) to the Lou Reed impersonation that is “Rules.”

Ash Gray and Girls is the type of band that gets everyone in the bar dancing because they remind them of some other band that they usually shake their moneymaker to. Ash Gray seems to have recognized this and capitalized on it, yanking shtick after shtick and combining them into memorable songs. Ash Gray and Girls seem to have become the acoustic pop version of Girl Talk, jacking stuff from everywhere and turning it into something new and different. Highly recommended for fans of any of the gazillion bands I’ve name checked so far, plus Jason Mraz and anyone else with an acoustic guitar and a pop hook. This Could Be a Wild Night is one heck of an EP.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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