"Good As Ever" /
Works Progress Administration
What's in a name? Well, here's a case study. Of course I knew there was a band out there in the 90s called Toad the Wet Sprocket, but something about that name made me assume it was a punk metal thrash band. They were young, they were from California, they were totally outside my frames of reference, back in those days between MTV and Sirius when I didn't have any decent channel for finding new music. Even though I'm sure I heard some of their big songs -- like All I Want or Fall Down -- I never connected song to band, and remained blissfully ignorant that this was actually a band I would have liked, and liked a lot.
Same thing with Nickel Creek. Nickel Creek, Nickleback -- who knew which was which? And because every Nickleback song I ever heard was obnoxiously loud and boring, I would never have paid attention to Nickel Creek, until a friend's daughter started dating mandolinist Chris Thile. I finally hauled myself to one of their shows and fell in love with their indie bluegrass sound. Unfortunately, that was on their "farewell for now" tour, so goodbye Nickel Creek. (Okay, okay, they're just on a break. Or so they say.)
I'd have missed Works Progress Administration, too, if they hadn't included a cover of the Kinks' "I Go To Sleep". Thankfully the Kinks network does not allow any covers to go unnoticed, and so I hunted down this track. I discovered to my delight that Works Progress Administration is a bizarre sort of supergroup, combining (get this line-up) fiddler Sara Watkins and her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, from Nickel Creek; Lyle Lovett's fiddler Luke Bulla; Tom Petty's keyboardist Benmont Tench; Elvis Costello's drummer Pete Thomas; Elvis's AND Hohn Hiatt's bassist Davey Faragher; and the incredible Greg Leisz, who's played various stringed instruments for everybody from Smashing Pumpkins to Sheryl Crow. And the presiding spirit of all this seems to be Toad the Wet Sprocket's leader, Glen Phillips. Who knew?
It's just an insanely good album, by the way, with track after track featuring each of these amazing artists. It really does feel like a community effort, a collaboration among music-loving musicians who dig each other's work and are happy to share the spotlight. (How refreshing!) Nevertheless, my big question after listening to this album was: Who is this Glen Phillips?
This particular WPA track has been teasing my brain for weeks now. I've got it on a couple of workout mixes on my iPod, and this stupid tiny iPod Shuffle that I've got doesn't display artist info -- so when that wheeze of fiddles starts up, I'm momentarily thrown. Is this a country artist? Alt.country? Everybody in this project is clearly getting their twang on, though you could hardly help it, with all those fiddles around.
But then as soon as Glen Phillips starts singing those unrhymed, meandering verses, I'm thrown back into indie mode. (Maybe it's the juxtaposition of words like "fontanelle" and "bassinet" and "razor blades" that does it.) "I feel too much and I'm sick of feeling" -- yup, that's perfect 21st-century sentiment. Yet that gently ticking tempo, the good-humored fiddles, and Phillips' ironic phrasing keeps the whole thing from going all dark and emo-punk. By the time he gets to that last verse -- "Maybe it's a kind of genius / Finding fault in everything / If I had a palace in utopia / I'd obsess on the cracks beneath the sink" -- we're clued into his comic persona, the hapless mopey loser.
For something this laidback and unassuming, it actually turns out to be a major earworm. I still can't figure out where the hooks are, though -- those ever so slightly discordant fiddle riffs? The moody key change at the end of the chorus? Maybe it's just the way Phillips pronounces "fontanelle." He knows the audience is going to giggle there.
I guess it's no surprise that a song by the Kinks would show up on this album -- the smart cool kids gets the Kinks, even the ones in sunny California. (Especially the ones in sunny California, maybe -- there's a reason why The 88 are Ray Davies' new pet band.) These guys get character, they get irony, and they've got the musical chops to back it up, enough chops to attract veterans like Benmont Tench and Greg Leisz. They deserve a better name than Works Progress Administration, for all its sincere Depression-era resonance. But hey, knowing how fluid the indie scene is these days, they'll probably change it next month anyway. I just hope I'll find it in time!