Simon Joyner: Beautiful Losers: Singles and Compilation Tracks 1994-1999, Jens Lekman: Oh You're So Silent Jens

Simon Joyner
Beautiful Losers: Singles and Compilation Tracks 1994-1999

Jens Lekman
Oh You're So Silent Jens
Secretly Canadian

Simon Joyner's music reminds me of his hometown, Omaha: faded ads on old brick buildings, silent streets, the odd slow-motion feel of post-railroad-boom cities that never quite found their place in the 20th century. His new collection borrows the title of Leonard Cohen's 1966 novel, and although the tribute invites comparisons of Joyner's Spartan songs and those of the Canadian balladeer, that's where the comparisons end. Joyner's acoustic tales are affecting but not easily known, like the ethos resonating through Omaha. His music is not any of the things Cohen's can be: bitter, erotic, self-consciously poetic, self-pitying, or reproachful. Vividly lonesome, yes, but less romantic than mythic, and not bohemian but domestically so. It's a tricky balance he strikes in "Sorrow Floats" ("She said bodies are for bruising/Children's eyes are meant for losing/So stick a needle in my promise/My heart wasn't that enormous after all").

Joyner's voice isn't the greatest, and he doesn't seem to speak on behalf of any tortured souls, but his strong, archetypal words have the air of testament. On "Flannery O'Connor," the album's most dramatic song, it's his very restraint amidst unbearable tragedy that's touching. Joyner bears weight that peers like John Darnielle or Will Oldham always seemed to struggle with. Maybe it's just that his canvas--the silent aura of a small, dark room, a close nothingness--is a worthy partner/adversary, cut from the same stuck-in-time mystery that sustains his mystic Missouri River city.

Not quite as austere as Joyner's but often as affecting, the early work of Göteborg native Jens Lekman is collected on Oh You're So Silent Jens, which comprises the 23-year-old songwriter's three out-of-print EPs. Lekman's mournful baritone and moody, lushly orchestrated songs evoke a likeness to Stephin Merritt, though it's perhaps more apt to call him the Scott Walker of indie pop. If anyone else recorded Rocky Dennis in Heaven, his concept EP about the deformed boy in Mask, you'd probably feel the need to give them a reassuring pat on the back and a jar of Wellbutrin. But then he'll enliven a melancholy work like "Rocky Dennis's Farewell Song" with transcendent flute and xylophone arrangements; a lulling, hypnotic drum loop; and over-the-top lyrics: "Someday I'll be stuffed in some museum, scaring little kids/With the inscripture 'carpe diem'/Something I never did."

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