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
There's a song on Heavy Sleeper's debut album, The Gifted Curse, called "Nothin' New." Like several other songs (the Greg Kihn Band's "The Breakup Song," for instance), "Nothin' New" appears to be about the unhappy conclusion of a romantic relationship. But its title might also refer to one of the finest passages of ancient rock criticism, Ecclesiastes 1:9: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which
is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." In some translations, "no new thing" is rendered "nothing new." In the chatty 1970s, undoubtedly, some hashish-tokin', gerund-clippin' translator probably offered "nothin' new," as Heavy Sleeper leader Marcel Galang has in his song, though I can't prove this.
The author of Ecclesiastes knew nothing of thermoses or unicycles (no new things indeed!), but he was onto something just the same. When writing record reviews, I'm sometimes tempted to simply quote Eccles. 1:9 and be done with it. (Unless I'm being paid by the word, in which case I'm tempted to quote the entire book of Ecclesiastes.) But though no one has time for mere facsimiles, in a world where derivation is inescapable and true innovation comes to but a few, a well-executed no new thing beats an original piece of crap every time.
The often excellent and mostly well-executed The Gifted Curse is the work of musicians comfortable with creating no new thing under the sun. The album, self-released this past October, is sometimes deliberately referential and sometimes just unabashed about its influences. These influences include all of the important British rock bands of the '60s and some soul acts from the same era. So too, I hear Queen (especially on "Never Alone," which deserves your company), the Beach Boys, Big Star (especially on "Pure Extract," which won't have you racing to sell your copy of Radio City), Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, the Cars, T. Rex, the Pernice Brothers (possibly), and the Hang Ups, with whom Galang has played keyboards since 1999.
Galang has long been a kind of peripheral figure on the local pop scene led by the currently inactive Hang Ups. In the mid- to late '90s he played in pop-rock combo Dearly, along with singer-multi-instrumentalist Matt Gerzema, bassist Aaron Lundholm (also a future Hang Up), and drummer Bryan Hanna, who produced The Gifted Curse. (Disclosure: Around that same time, Hanna produced my former band.) Not long after hooking up with the Hang Ups, Galang formed the short-lived Komodo, an English-accented four-piece in the general style of Spiritualized, Radiohead, and late-period Petula Clark. (Perhaps not Ms. Clark.) Heavy Sleeper played its first gig in 2003, and is now made up of singer-guitarist-pianist Galang and three simpatico players borrowed from Arch Stanton: bassist Paul Jongeward, drummer Matt Alexander, and guitarist Drew Herder, who gets in several inspired leads on this album.
"Komodo was a more cerebral attempt at going for a new sound, as opposed to just pursuing what comes naturally," says Galang, reached on his cell phone. "I was rejecting a lot of my '70s rock influences, trying to do something different, but that didn't really work."
Recorded with a variety of musicians between 2000 and this past spring, The Gifted Curse is a get-back-to-where-you-once-belonged album and a sideman-announces-himself album. As the band's name suggests, Heavy Sleeper's music is muscular yet dreamy, power pop with actual power. The sha-la-la vocals and trips to falsettoland are countered with boom-boom-whap drumming and corpulent guitar tones. This is especially demonstrated by the album's first two cuts: "Home," a crunchy and tuneful love song, and "I'm With You," a harmonica- and sax-graced invocation to dance to the Motown beat in the Culture Club's Church of the Poisoned Mind.
Which isn't to say that Galang is quite ready to portray Levi Stubbs or Boy George in a WB biopic. As a singer, he tends to struggle on opposite poles of the soft-hard continuum. On one hand, he's too quick to call on his not-always spot-on falsetto; on the other hand, his periodic bluesy (emphasis on "-y") ululations aren't entirely convincing.
Most of the time, though, he sings just fine, tenderly on the lovely chorus to "Easy, Easy," passionately on the whoa-oh-oh-ohs that hook "Home." This is craftily arranged, smartly played stuff. It won't change your life. It might improve your mood. Galang is not yet an exceptional wordsmith, which partly explains why my favorite lyric from The Gifted Curse doesn't look so impressive on paper. But since it expresses my general thoughts on the album, it seems worth quoting in its entirety: "Yeah!".