By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Devotion and Doubt
I HAVE TWO friends named Dan and Roger who, due to a surfeit of testosterone or some other biological quirk, began going bald around the ninth grade. They also share a wildly yet charmingly doomed outlook on romance, a mutual character trait that's led me to posit a connection between prematurely receding hairlines and a certain distinctly male brand of emotional hopelessness.
Now, I don't know when Mark Eitzel's forehead began growing, but I suspect it was years before he could legally purchase the spirits that moisten his tortured, beautiful-loser pop. West continues his thousand-and-one-nights of mythic California sorrow via characters who consider getting a fresh screwdriver right before closing time as reason to break out in song. This time he's abetted by Pete "Lord, I need another side project" Buck, who finally gets a chance at the remake of Nick Drake's Bryter Layter he's always pined for. But since Eitzel is a braying, spraying American rock lout rather than an ephemeral English folkie, the results have a different sort of desperation. Amidst the vibes, celeste, string-thing arrangements, and pedal-down piano, Eitzel rails against stasis, frequently to some "you" who's going down slow. In "Lower Eastside Tourist" a loveless, self-loathing yuppie drinks himself to death "on the company." In "Stunned & Frozen," a risk taker "with nothing left to discover" stands on the banks of a river contemplating suicide. It's familiar ground, but Buck's input (as co-writer, producer, and guitarist) pushes Eitzel away from his recent neo-jazz conceits and toward the sort of neo-folk pop anthems that have long kept Buck in new boots. Thus we get lots of simple, repetition-based choruses and some of Eitzel's catchiest stuff since early American Music Club gems like "Rise." It even rocks out at points, as on "Move Myself Ahead," an ode to self-realization by a very lost hombre that sounds like Elvis Costello covering the Stranglers.
Buckner is another boy singer/songwriter who trafficks in emotional car-wrecks, and Devotion and Doubt opens with a tragic hero warning a wild girl that he'll "pull her down," and an image of a "ghost with a drink." A simple, down-tempo alt-country affair on the surface, the record reveals its uniqueness slowly. First you notice the voice: its weird, almost forced mix of modern Northern urban and old Southern rural accents, the overweening yet still scary way it cracks and flattens out, or disappears to a channeling of air like the end of a Ben Webster saxophone phrase. Then there are the accidental-seeming melodies that rise from sepulchral arrangements and lodge themselves in your head. And then you notice the words: unusual, oddly juxtaposed, tied together into a lifeline of dust rags that might pull the singer up out of the abyss--and then again, might not.
It's the language, in fact, that makes this music's beauty fresher and stranger than the kindred revivalism of Gillian Welch and Son Volt's Jay Farrar. "Fater," for instance, is an a cappella piece styled after an old-time mountain ballad that emotes far differently than its models ("Fighter fater faker and sin/Is the name I've taken deep within... I saw such light in you/Crushed by the basement view"). "Lil Wallet Picture" describes the telling moment when a lover has packed up and "the U-Haul broke free" over a pedal steel-laced backdrop that faintly echoes Son Volt's signature tune "Windfall." But where the latter hinges on the singer's escape into music that "sounds like 1963," Buckner pleads to see an old snapshot taken "in 1985," returning to those more recent numbers less for escape than like Yukio Mishima used his ritual-disembowelment sword back in 1970.
Some women I know don't sympathize with this sort of romantic fatalism. Maybe it's a guy thing--a sort of macho hairshirt cultivation of sorrow that's the emotional equivalent of a long gym workout or a hard massage. But like West, Devotion and Doubt is one haunting, haunted album, and I haven't been able to shake its voices and melodies out of my head for weeks. Oh yeah--Buckner still has a full head of hair. Me too. I guess all bets are off. (Will Hermes)