Forty-Four Songs About 88 Mouse-Men

COME HITHER, YE angry, brooding music lovers! Where is thy sting? When I saw punk bands Last Chance and Frances Gumm play at an as-yet-unnamed venue in Dinkytown last week, there were only about 20 kids in the audience, and nary a broken bottle to rake across their chests. In fact, those fine, safety-pinned gentlemen in attendance didn't hurl a single insult or loogie at the band members. Instead, they sat cross-legged on the ground and listened as placidly as a group of milk-drowsy kindergarteners at story time. When the thrash-punk songs were over, they clapped.

Is a rash of niceness taking the edge off of your favorite music scene? Perhaps it is time to try a little quiz: Are sincere pop bands like Ladybug Transistor eroding your indie-rock urge to spew sarcastic asides? While you're waiting in line for a reggae show, are you tempted to "pass the dutchie from the left-hand side" to share with complete strangers? Does listening to songs called "Random Bunny Drawings" make you want to get funky?

If that last proposition appeals to you, then you might want to take the young gentlemen who write such friendly song titles--the folks from Work of Saws--to meet your mother. Singer/guitarist Brock Davis, bassist/pianist Dave Samela, guitarist Kurt Froehlich, and drummer Greg Barnell all respect their elders, paying tribute to past singers in songs like "Kenny Rogers Was Lonely." They're polite in a surprisingly charismatic way: At their last Bryant-Lake Bowl show a week back, Davis noted that the band's CDs were available, "at that table of beautiful young ladies...but that could be any table in here!" And they've got that old Protestant work ethic: Work of Saws' debut album Motivation and Watertower Grammar (Thick Furniture Records) bears the weight of 44 songs.

"I get bored really easily," the 28-year-old Davis explains. "I like songs that don't have the standard 'verse, chorus, verse, bridge' stuff. And one way to avoid that is to just make really short songs that don't have time to repeat anything. The songs are all a few minutes long, which is about the length of my attention span."

Which I guess means that Davis has stopped reading my column by this point. Which also means that you, gentle reader, have probably done the same. Which therefore means that this is my chance to pontificate on my favorite subjects that no one else wants to hear about, like my secret fascination with the bizarre genre of Eighties fantasy movies! But Davis has beaten me to it. Turns out he loves the theme song to The Never-Ending Story.

"In fact," says Davis, "if you walk past the table of our CDs--where the beautiful ladies are sitting--and you don't buy one, it will be just like that part in The Never-Ending Story when Atreyu goes by the statues and they open their eyes and he knows he's in trouble. [Embarrassed pause.] Don't ask me how I know Atreyu's name."

The CD, guarded by bar sirens, is filled with lyrics as surreal and wholesome as the aforementioned film. The songs describe hidden populations that live in the "smaller ink on maps," the antics of hybrid mouse-men, and warnings of a wicked force that is plotting to take over the world. This quirky mythology takes on a personal cast through lo-fi aesthetics, folk-guitar strumming, and ragtime-style piano melodies. And because the songs are so short, the eclectic album reproduces the effect of pushing the "scan" button on your car radio.

Davis doesn't often make use of his car radio. Because he's a nice guy, he makes the environmentally friendly choice to ride mass transit. That's when he has the time to try to think up ideas for songs, although he admits he is inspired by Guided by Voices, and his songs don't always sound completely original.

"On my bus ride to the advertising agency where I work, I think up songs," he says. "But then I don't have a way to record them, so I have to call up my voicemail and hum the songs before I forget them....Sometimes I'll be humming and I think, 'Hey, that's a great song!' but then it sounds familiar, so I go back and listen to all of my tapes of me humming 20-second tunes, and sometimes it's already there, so I can't use it."

When I imagine Davis humming into his answering machine, I remember a scene from Gremlins--my other favorite Eighties fantasy movie. Work of Saws' songs have that just-add-water-and-watch-them-multiply kind of appeal: immediate gratification followed by repeat appearances on the stereo. Plus, maybe it's Davis's fuzzy hair, but I can't help imagining him in that Gremlins scene when Mogwai hums a short vibrato tune while little Billy Peltzer appears anxious to record him. [Embarrassed pause.] Just don't ask me how I remember little Billy Peltzer's name.

 
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