All These Long Drives
As Andy Flynn thumbs through the plastic-covered pages of a songbook that's the size of the Oxford English Dictionary, an orange-haired woman he refers to as "Lamb of God" trills to "Wonderful World." "Listen to her vibrato," says Flynn, Duplomacy's singer/guitarist. Indeed, her warbling "World" does make her sound like she's seconds away from offering the Eucharist.
If an analogy for Duplomacy's life as a band could unfold in a single night, it'd happen here at Mancini's Char House and Lounge in St. Paul, underneath the tiled ceilings, amid the old-school charm of lingering cigar smoke and a love of Sinatra, and in the rounded red-vinyl booths that hug karaoke-loving patrons with decades' worth of tales about high-rollers and their highballs. Except, of course, the members of Duplomacy smoke cigarettes instead of cigars. They drink pints instead of Manhattans. Their songs are dreamy instead of dispirited. And the Lamb of God isn't a part of their band, although Adam Egerdahl, who has his degree in music theory, uses the hard-covered hymnals he regularly uncovers at thrift stores for guitar-plucking inspiration. (In contrast, Flynn uses current news items as inspiration.) But really, their story is just like tonight: lonely tunes, the Lamb of God, Cyndi Lauper, a love-struck, black-clad, bottled blonde with a Juice Newton fixation and all.
Flynn, Egerdahl, drummer Judd Hildreth (who also plays drums in Valet), keyboardist P.A. Corts, and bassist Erik Dahl (who is in Chicago tonight) used to frequent Mancini's karaoke nights a couple of years ago. They returned tonight for the first time in months, a bit rusty and every one of them reluctant as hell to get onstage. But the band members already stand out. In their late 20s and early 30s, they're decades younger than everyone else in the crowd.
The songs on their new album, All These Long Drives, are more beautifully melancholy and introspective à la Pavement than they are karaoke sing-alongs. Atmospheric and sparse, the plaintive songs ask to be alone, not sung by Mr. Look-at-Me. Still, Flynn, whose drowsy and warm vocals are like elixirs for old wounds on the record, possesses the power to ruin the night of 30 or so people if he dares bust out Young MC's "Bust a Move," a song he did a couple of years ago that he swears almost made an elderly man hunched on a bar stool start crying.
Hildreth tries to loosen everyone up by placing his hand on Flynn's knee under the table. He calls Flynn the Mr. Rogers of the band. The singer doesn't swear that often (he says "f'in'"), and he's a kind soul who spends his days with finger-stained books working for the Minneapolis library. So instead, Hildreth provokes Corts, a geologist, to read aloud one of the drummer's daily dirty-tongue-twister text messages. For reasons obvious to everyone, Corts stops at "Sally."
After the bottled blonde does her third trucker-passed-me-by tune, Flynn finally gathers up enough beer-bred encouragement to put in his name. Seconds later, the Willie Nelson-loving host calls him to the stage. Flynn chooses the Zombies' "Time of the Season," and at first, his vocals are sweet and understated, not unlike those on the melodic Grandaddy-esque slow burn of "Stars," the first song on the new album. And then he chokes. "Hello?" he says into the mic to no one in particular. He is obsessed with singing in the right key, so much so that he eventually freezes onstage with his arms crossed and a look of incredulity on his face. And then, for about another minute, there's nothing. No more vocals. Just the karaoke music, pulsing like a 1980s Casio, and Flynn standing embarrassingly alone like the cheese. "Life is hard, that's all I'm saying," Flynn says with a smile to the obviously displeased crowd before exiting the stage. A lone man in the corner claps and gives him a thumbs-up sign. "You gotta love his spirit," he yells.
Egerdahl doesn't fare much better. He does Three Dog Night's "One," but before he can even complete the opening line, he falls silent. He can't find the right key either. But he stands onstage for the entire song, perhaps as a visual reference in case anyone is unaware that one is indeed awkward and lonely.
"This is the story of our lives, musically and everything else," Flynn says of the false starts. Duplomacy have been through a few changes over the years. Their first guitarist moved away for grad school. Egerdahl, who originally played drums, switched to guitar when Hildreth joined. Their album was supposed to come out a year ago, but it too suffered from fits and starts.
Such obstacles have proven to be a good thing. The end result of their forked venture is an album loaded with achingly beautiful songs of despair that are somehow hopeful. "Coppertone" is a languid ode to apathy that ends in distant, reverb-filled sunbursts. "People" starts off as a haunting outer-space love song and escalates into a zigzag pop tune inspired by the Flaming Lips' kidlike approach to The Soft Bulletin. And the acoustic "Holiday," featuring Flynn's doubled vocals, could've been the song Elliot Smith happily penned before taking a knife to the heart.
As with all of their music projects, Flynn and Egerdahl refuse to give up tonight. Too ashamed to confront the vested Willie Nelson fanatic, Flynn enlists Hildreth to submit his slip. Egerdahl's girlfriend does his dirty deed for him. And then five, ten, fifteen minutes pass. The host does another Willie song, this time with a baseball-capped wannabe-Waylon accompanying him. And then finally, Flynn and Egerdahl are "in the hole."
Flynn performs a subdued indie-rock version of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." Egerdahl does a surprisingly accurate Barry Manilow, closing his eyes and unearthing a lounge act from his wiry frame for "I Write the Songs." It's late, and the vibe in the place feels something like stuck-at-a-wedding-reception-in-1978 as directed by David Lynch. People seem unable to unglue their eyes from their laps. But Egerdahl and Flynn nail it. And they clap for one another as if they knew they could.
"This happens to us all the time," Egerdahl says. "If it didn't happen this way, it wouldn't be us. Everything we do falls apart. But in the end, it always comes together."