Wise Blood

First Prize Killers pulse with the beat of pastoral pop

Paul DesCombaz has a Southern Gothic mind and a comic book soul. Or vice versa. Though his countenance tends toward a smile and his temperament toward an affable nonchalance, DesCombaz takes to the works of Flannery O'Connor, Kelly Link, Tony Millionaire, Alex Robinson--writers and artists who thrive on gut-churning themes of violence, morality, and redemption. What he distills from these humid worlds, it seems, is a sense of paused beauty, a shaky toehold on love. As the auteur behind local band the First Prize Killers (whose name evokes Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery"), he writes power-pop tunes filled with pure Midwestern romance and idealism. On the band's new album, The Powdery Parade, he aims to capture either your heart or your indie eardrums, whichever surrenders first.

You may have heard the First Prize Killers' anthem "City Won't Let You Down" blasting out of Radio K recently. It's a crash-and-slur sing-along that sounds like 1982 resurrected, the cry of a sincere Everydude selling records at Cheapo, living without the blindfolds on. DesCombaz breathlessly shouts lyrics like "In the first year that I moved on/Every penny I earned weighed a ton," as simple chords pounce on him and a trumpet skirts the backdrop.

The anthem hits hard, but the rest of The Powdery Parade is different. It's a jangling, resonating pop stream--the candid pastorale that indie rock has been promising ever since Steven Malkmus started copping Jim Croce melodies. The twin guitars of Mike Andrew (a.k.a. Mandrew) and Tony Mogelson alternately tumble and soar, while DesCombaz's earnest voice often recalls a young Eric Bachmann (minus the screams) or J. Mascis (minus the beer bong). The mood of these hooks is that of a tight sunbeam shifting past your head on an air-conditioned MetroTransit bus. The Powdery Parade is summer in the Twin Cities.

One of these five rockers is sadly in need of some beer and pizza to balance out that stick-thin body and fat head: First Prize Killers
Daniel Corrigan
One of these five rockers is sadly in need of some beer and pizza to balance out that stick-thin body and fat head: First Prize Killers

I meet the band at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, and immediately the cross-table parley ranges from Leon Redbone to Liz Phair, from the Fall to Flannery O'Connor. By the third round of beers we're discussing poetry: Charles Bukowski and Irving Layton. I'm in the presence of a veritable Twin Cities Algonquin Square Table: "bookish fellows," music geeks, art directors, poets. ("My songs are just little three-chord tunes until I give them to these guys," says DesCombaz.) All six thirtysomethings are rock 'n' roll kids at heart, equally eager to talk about their other musical projects (Hero, Florida, Walker Kong, Mandrew, the Mike Brady Trio, the Shuffle Brothers, Accident Clearinghouse), as they are their poetry heroes. Oh yeah, they've also formed their own book club. This month's selection: Joy Williams's The Quick and the Dead--talk about violence and redemption!

When the heady conversation turns to the topic of Randy Newman, some jocular dissent erupts. At the end of the table, Andrew blurts, "I hate the man, but I respect his writing!"

"I respect the man, but I hate his writing," retorts drummer/guitarist Mike Brady, with a sly smile.

"I've tried to do Randy Newman in the past and failed miserably," admits DesCombaz, whose Newman obsession is no secret to the band.

On the new album, the songwriter has instead given us "God Takes a Lover," with its theological conceit in which God is a shitty boyfriend. And then there's the lush and beautiful "Vampire Lake," which features a nudist robot named Randall. A distinctly geodynamic undercurrent runs throughout, from "Airplane Starts" and "The Lower 48" to "Situation South." DesCombaz denies any grand organizing strategy to it all: He explains that "Airplane Starts," for example, is about "how I'm scared of flying and my fiancée scares the living shit out of me."

The mood is a bit different on "The Lower 48," with its familiar, intimate melody, irrational exuberance ("sparkle kids are running by like human fireflies"), and jubilant chorus ("We're not over the hill./We're still young./We're gonna carve our names into the side of the sun"). To me, it sounds like a new indie-romance sing-along, something for all of us with lovers by our sides and pocket knives gouging initials into tree trunks.

Mogelson agrees; "It sort of reminds me of driving around the country with your girlfriend."

But then he adds cryptically, leaning in close, "Every song on this album has a crossroads in it."

Crossroads? Isn't that, y'know, where the devil is supposed to meet you? Southern Gothic style? Well, let's not make too much out of it.

In the end, the songs on The Powdery Parade have a resonance that springs from the band's melodic gifts and DesCombaz's talent for wet melodies and naked simplicity. And these days, it's risky just to be simple, isn't it?

Mogelson illustrates this point himself at one point in the evening, while glancing out the window. "See that puddle right there?" he asks. "Though it's not very deep, it will get you wet."

 
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