Flowers in the Dustbin
Mark Mallman attracts stalkers--I happen to know one, actually. (And no, it's not me.) The piano man looks like Eminem and rocks like Elton John, but I suspect his adoring "Stans" respond to something more. Mallman is fearless. He's as much a punk vaudevillian as Steph Dickson, the titular blossom in Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears. (That duo has relocated from here to New York, which makes stalking somewhat expensive.)
Dickson and Mallman share one degree of separation in the person of Tom Siler, who co-writes songs and plays keyboards with Her Trail of Tears. Siler and Mallman used to touch their wagging, Gene Simmons-esque tongues onstage in the Odd, their trash-rock "supergroup" inspired by Dickson's outfit Bean Girl. All of these entertainers have a sensibility that could be described as Minnesota's most characteristic take on glam-rock: glam as transparent pathos. They smack of desperation-- Mallman's notorious 26.2-hour performance of a song called "Marathon" in 1999 was in essence a plea for attention. Dickson shares with him a go-for-broke abandon that's gawky and threatening and hilarious. Both are charmingly aware of being ridiculous, yet they throw themselves into their roles, anyway. Neither is a joke: Fearlessness makes their desperation seem heroic.
Mallman and Dickson are such exciting performers that purchasing their respective CDs might be an afterthought even for fans. Yet Mallman made one of the best local albums of the Nineties, a self-released debut that I underrated at the time. The Tourist was an anomaly in 1998, and remains so today: Think Meatloaf-size drama-rock rippling with lo-fi electronic textures--a sound that takes both the Warp catalog and "Bohemian Rhapsody" as natural reference points. Mallman's music has always been hyperbolic and intimate. He sings Big Choruses about Death and Life in a bleat that's wobbly and straight from the sinus cavity. Yet this disproportion between a voice he can't change and songs he can't simplify is funny and touching. And his tunes are as bright and catchy as those of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
To assess Mallman's worth as a songwriter, listen to "We Only Have Each Other in the Night" on his second self-release, How I Lost My Life and Lived to Tell About It. Then listen to the version of this song that appears on his otherwise sleepy 2001 collaboration with Vermont, Mark Mallman and Vermont (Guilt Ridden Pop). Where the original comes on like a Cars hit, its bombast tailored to live needs, the Vermont rendition-- with the Promise Ring's Davey Von Bohlen on vocals--strips away the old synth blare to leave a tremulous and affecting melody intact. Maybe it took Mallman ventriloquizing through an emo icon for the songwriter to be taken seriously: He's an "ironic" entertainer only in the sense that dramatic overkill and stage shtick are his way of making intensely personal music fun to play.
But Mallman is serious about albums. He recorded twice as many new songs as made the cut for his latest, The Red Bedroom (Guilt Ridden Pop), which he'll render live on Saturday at the 400 Bar. He also left poppy compilation nuggets and MP3 rarities out of the final ten cuts. The result is cohesion at the expense of peaks (only the soulful rave-up "Humankind" rocks out). But the results range from slow and pretty to just pretty damn slow. The title track is a lovely Flaming Lips-style chamber-pop number: "If ever I loved, it was secret and strong/It was simply a word that was there all along," croons Mallman (without croaking), as Jessy Greene's strings swell (without schmaltz). But the road anthem "Traveling High" is pure Jon Bon Seger. Maybe the dude has mellowed under the belief that being broad and hilarious is an artistic liability.
No such delusions pollute the new CD by Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears. Anyone who caught the duo's recent local gigs, or owns 2000's Touched (Shoshaura), might be startled by the departure that is Cry (SM Records). Siler and producer Jacques Wait have retooled Dickson's cabaret showtunes for the pop mainstream--that is, if you count "The Hustle" and Tears for Fears new wave as the pop mainstream. "Constant State of Desire" might be a B-52's hit if Dickson's singing weren't so throaty, messy, and soulful. Where Mallman seems to have cultivated some cool, Dickson sounds like a quiet girl erupting at a school talent show.
The theme of Cry is romantic imperviousness. "Couple Utopia" satirizes the happy bubble of love. "Good Morning Boyfriend" is Kafka's "Metamorphosis" revised as a tract against lookism--Dickson loves her cockroach mate-for-life because, unlike the beautiful people, he'll survive a nuclear holocaust. But our flower invariably wilts or snaps in the hothouse of perfect happiness. Rather than chase down the ideal partner, she'd probably rather stalk herself.
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