Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Skin and Bones" / Motion City Soundtrack

Another song with a title that sounds like a Kinks song, but isn't. This one's from a different band, though -- another new album I reviewed for Blogcritics. Of course, I have written about this band here before (and here too). But a new album deserves another post.

I first saw Motion City Soundtrack a couple summers ago, sandwiched in between the Hush Sound and Panic at the Disco (yes, my pre-teen daughter picked the concert) on the Honda Civic Tour. The other bands were peppy and entertaining, but -- sigh! -- I immediately fell irrationally in love with Motion City Soundtrack. Snarky lyrics and a lead singer in nerd glasses will always do that to me. (Remember Elvis Costello?) I realized then that I'd been listening to them on my kids' iPods for months; their insanely catchy, revved-up melodies were already familiar.

I'd never bothered to listen to the lyrics, though, and once I did, Motion City Soundtrack leapfrogged right into this tiny cadre of artists I consider My Guys. Membership in that elite corps is very selective; it's more that just really really really liking their music. I become convinced that I get where they're coming from, and that if we ever met, they'd appreciate that I was one of their Special Fans.

I can't predict who goes in that door and who doesn't, mind you. Why should Keb' Mo' be there and not Amos Lee? Why Death Cab for Cutie and not the Decemberists? Why Ben Folds and not Ben Harper? Why Fountains of Wayne and not the Shins? Why the Old 97s and not My Morning Jacket? Why John Hiatt and not John Prine? Why Amy Rigby and Jill Sobule but not Aimee Mann and Jenny Lewis? (because it's not just guys . . . .) Why the Kinks and not the Beatles? Why Nick Lowe and not Graham Parker? (Okay, that one I get...)

But back to Motion City Soundtrack. In a sea of power pop, punk-pop, and indie-emo bands, these guys really stand out, not just for their clever lyrics but for their psychological insights. The characters in MCS songs tend to be misfits, insecure losers, but they're brilliant losers with a huge vocabulary and a shrink's eye for the betraying gesture. On this fourth album, My Dinosaur Life -- their graduation to the big leagues of a Major Label -- they even dare to move beyond paranoid love songs to consider the universe.

Yes, the universe. This entire song is a meditation on the purpose of life. (Maybe Justin Pierre watched one too many Richard Attenborough documentaries on the Discovery Channel.) Uptempo it may be, underlaid with a cheese-grater guitar strum, but the melody is yearning and anxious, as the protagonist mulls over the Big What-Ifs. Such as: "What if there's nothing more to me / I'm just skin and bones, there's no mystery?" Or "What if there's no way to explain / Things like deja vu and acid rain?" Or "What if there's nothing more to us, / We're just carbon dust, we're just pixie dust?" And the most important one, cradled in a lush set of vocal harmonies: "Will we be all right, left alone tonight?" That little-child sense of vulnerability, that fear of the surrounding void, is heart-wrenching.

Yet accompanying those abstruse philosophical queries, the sound is raw and fierce, like a shield of electric guitars, loud bashing drums, and a moog synthesizer (just right for that sci-fi underlayer). That punk-flavored aural assault is like a chainsaw, cutting through the complacency of day-to-day existence. By the song's end, they still have no answer -- only the fellowship of back-up vocals and that protective chain-mail of sound. But at least they've asked the question.

It takes courage to wade out into the void. It takes nerve not to go for the easy, comforting answer. I'm so proud of My Guys.


Michael said...

Not wishing to be petty and all that but I think you mean David Attenborough (The Brother)!

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, right, thanks! (I'm sure the brothers hate it when they get mixed up!) Just shows how little time I ever spent watching PBS . . .

wwolfe said...

I'd never heard of this band, so I'm happy to have a chance to discover them. Good song, and the singer actually has a pleasing voice - a rarity nowadays among indie singers.