by Jon Hunt
This week, we preview the excellent forthcoming LPs from local songwriting genius Mark Mallman and John Crozier’s new project, Typsy Panther.
Mark Mallman, Double Silhouette (released Oct. 9)
The thing people forget about Mark Mallman when they talk about the crazy stunts and the gimmicks – and by the way, let’s not hear a jot of bitching, please, because stunts and gimmicks are part and parcel of rock (see: KISS, Bowie, Alice Cooper, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Arthur Brown, et al) – is what a goddamn great pop songwriter he is.
It’s true. The sleep-deprived experimental stuff he does during the Marathons isn’t remotely representative of the tight, focused, hooky pop music he usually traffics in. Frankly, Double Silhouette, his latest, is the album the Killers were trying to make with Battle Born – an epic, gorgeous pop album filled with arena-ready choruses. But he does it in a way that doesn’t make him sound pompous (sorry, Killers). Even at his most epic, Mallman sounds humble and human and deeply idiosyncratic, and that’s why this album works so bloody well. Think a brighter, more colorful Spoon. Think Elton John. Think Springsteen. Think shit you love on the radio. This is that.
First off, it’s filled with songs that should (in the perfect universe I wish we lived in) probably be huge radio hits. The title track is a throbbing call-to-arms with a gigantic chorus that echoes both Springsteen and Bowie in equal measures; a cool, chilly sound with beautifully warm, enveloping vocals. “Dirty Dishes” is a marvelously catchy little number driven by a fuzzy, ba-diddy-ba guitar riff and a particularly silly metaphor drawn to the absolute limit. “Shadow of the Darkest Dawn” is the kind of gorgeous, open-sky pop single bands like Coldplay try to make every time out and fail because they cram too goddamn much into it, while Mallman plays it minimal and restrained while plying a magnificent chorus that’ll drill its way into your head. And “So Much for Hollywood Endings” is my favorite of the lot, chock-a-block with burbling synths and big epic chord changes and a gorgeous melody.
That’s not to say that this shit is straight or anything – this is Mallman, for god’s sake, he’s gonna reel out some amazing, fucked-up stuff to twist up the pure pop. “Slow The Guillotine,” a lovelorn ballad if ever there was one, starts off by referencing Twin Peaks before taking you through the harrowing story of a love affair gone horribly awry. “Single Silhouette” starts out like a cross between Keith Emerson and Steve Reich before settling into a pretty, flute-driven instrumental number that sounds like the soundtrack to a John Carpenter film. And “The Man with Music Instead of Blood,” part of a loose suite of songs near the end of the album, is all metaphor and wordplay and insistent guitar playing, dark and foreboding and a little scary in places. And the album ends with the unexpectedly pretty and sad “Fight The Darkness with More Darkness,” reminding me a little of Nebraska-era Springsteen but with a wry sense of humor.
In a lot of ways, this is Mallman’s best record – it’s more textural and lazer-sharp than Invincible Criminal, and a lot more radio ready (in the best of all possible ways), sounding like the perfect cross between his dance-driven Ruby Isle material (which you need to hear) and his previous, more piano-driven, Ben Foldsy work, aiming straight at some kind of hypothetical rock radio that probably doesn’t exist anymore. The hooks are sharper. The colors are brighter. The lyrics are more pointed and more phantasmagoric, and Mallman’s voice sounds absolutely terrific. And the whole thing flows together marvelously from top to bottom, starting with the reel-’em-in pop choons and ending somewhere in brain-pan territory, all emotion and darkness and songs about music taking over your life (for good or ill).
So forget the gimmicks, folks. The excellent Double Silhouette is one of the best local records of the year (add it to my list!) and proves what I’ve been saying all along – that Mark Mallman is one of our best songwriters (if not our very best), an absolute master of the pop song form. If this shit doesn’t take off into the pop stratosphere, I’ll eat a goddamn hat.*
Typsy Panthre, Typsy Panthre (released Oct. 23)
Two of my favorite local songs of all time – the Hang-Ups’ “Runway” and Ninotchka’s “I’ve Got Wings” (both from the “gap years” – fuck you very much, Howler) – have a thing in common: reclusive guitar genius John Crozier, who is able to effortlessly make sounds out of his guitar which sound like they literally come from outer space and lay them over these magnificent little pop songs that worm their way into your heart and soul. Crozier’s latest project, Typsy Panther, a collab with Owls/Legendary Jim Ruiz singer Allison LaBonne, is a sweetly low-key affair; a sumptuous album filled with clever/cool euro songwriting, coy breakbeats and super-cool electronic textures.
The best song here is the obvious radio hit “Hitchhiker,” an oddly-insistant electronic number that sounds not at all unlike what a Gary Numan/Serge Gainsbourg collab would have sounded like – all cool chanteuse-vocals and throbbing dance beats and chilly, pinging electronics. It’s a little bit of an outlier, though, with the gorgeously rolling “Paper Winter” and the utterly idyllic “September Sun” being more typical – sweet and lush and pretty, crafting beautiful, melancholy, nostalgic moods over burbling oceans of electronics. It’s pretty stuff, and possibly the prettiest of all is the magnificent “Golden Lily,” which flows along on a river of acoustic arpeggiation and a wonderfully sparkling melody. It sounds exactly like a spring day. Exactly. Surprise cover at the end of the record: a straightforward acoustic cover of “Pretty In Pink” (yeah, that one!) which LaBonne tackles perfectly with her sweet, slightly sandpapery voice. And I love the album closer “Another Room In The Castle,” which has probably the best hook on the record; a catchy little earworm overlaying a bouncy keyboard figure and a buoyant breakbeat.
Crozier’s ear for sounds is what makes this thing special. Every song has at its heart a clever structure overlayed with beautiful “elfin magic” in the form of magnificent sonics – listen to “Lorna Clark,” for example, which could have gone straight into French pop territory but instead takes a left turn into the early ’80s, with bubbly synths fortifying Crozier’s guitar jangle and LaBonne’s almost-whispered voice. Or the mysterious “All Fall Down,” which drags in messed-up, fuzz-drenched guitar textures over a surprising Nick Drake-ish violin figure and a spooky vocal melody.
Typsy Panthre is – I would think, anyway – the perfect album for a tea party on a spring or summer day. It’s one of those albums, sun-dappled and twee as hell (wearing that on its sleeve, thankyouverymuch), all opulence and hushed moods and crickets chirping and the sound of breeze rippling over bright green gras. Crozier and LaBonne have crafted a mood record, here, filled with Crozier’s clever pop songs and even clever-er sonics and LaBonne’s gorgeous, throaty vocals. It’s great stuff, and if you’re so inclined, you’ll be quite damn captivated.
*Look. If the Hold Steady can make it big – and that’s basically music led by a guy talking out of his throat – this stuff should too. It’s justice, dammit.