Despite Michael Benjamin Lerner’s penchant for peppy tunes and “BUP-baada-BUP” vocals, the Telekinesis mastermind seems like a worrywart on 12 Desperate Straight Lines, his group’s latest effort. On “Gotta Get It Right Now”, he and whoever is singing backup nag themselves with the title over and over, kinda like those poor sleep-deprived kids who compete in the National Spelling Bee. “Get It Right” is the closing song on a breakup album, the culmination of 12 Desperate Straight Lines, when Lerner should be having an epiphany or meeting someone new, or whatever happens when you culminate. The song swings happily enough—“BUP BUP BUP BUP baada BAHHHH!”—but Lerner keeps fretting. “All my friends are so locked down/I’m 23, I should be screwin’ around/And I gotta get it right now”. This is a man who has trouble culminating.
It seems Lerner fell in love during the summer (naturally), and by the spring, him and his lover had split up. Since then, he’s spent most of his time trying to come up with perfect kiss-off lines. Every once in a while he nails it. In “You Turn Clear In the Sun”, amid Grandaddy-ish keyboard squiggles, he chides, “You say nothing, and I know it’s true/You say nothing, and it comes right back to you.” Ouch! Even better is this cruel paradox from “Please Ask For Help”: “When I try to get away you always give me the slip”. Whether that means anything or not, it’s perfect.
Unfortunately, Lerner’s music is equally fussy, as though he’s so bent on arousing his ex’s jealousy that he’s unwilling to let a beat or note escape scrutiny. The first Telekinesis album, jazz-handily titled Telekinesis!, had the loose feel of gussied up garage rock; Desperate sounds more like stripped down power pop. Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie produced both albums, and while he and Lerner achieve some great guitar and drum sounds, every tambourine hit sounds notated, every burst of distortion plotted out.
Another Walla production job from last year, the Thermals’ Personal Life, sounded equally premeditated, but they were able to sell the music anyway, thanks to band interplay and Hutch Harris’s vivid singing. Lerner’s singing voice simply doesn’t have the personality to put these songs over. He’s got a wispy tenor that sometimes approaches screechy Perry Farrell territory, but for the most part would be impossible to pick out of an indie-dude lineup.
Lerner seems more in his element when he’s playing instruments. He even pulls off a couple three-bar riffs, for off-kilter effect. Drumming is the guy’s strongest suit, and he’s got a good ear for beats, fills, and grooves. The album’s best song, “Please Ask For Help”, stacks a syncopated melody atop reverb-y goth riffs atop a scudding “My Sharona” pogo. Lerner audibly catches his breath between lines, and the effort becomes him.
There’s nothing here to make Lerner’s audience catch their breath, though—no ace guitar solos or unexpected vocal asides, nothing to indicate that these songs are anything more than catchy little melodies playing inside Lerner’s mind. True, they can be catchy. But more often, they’re forgettable, and the overall effect is pretty writerly. “Please Ask For Help” and a couple drum fills aside, Desperate sounds like a series of well-executed demos, waiting to be taken up by a crack band and a singer who can make them breathe.