Laziness is generally frowned upon. Lazy people are fired and/or divorced and/or mocked. Lazy eyes are ridiculed and/or solved with corrective lenses and/or found distracting. In music, however, laziness is often praised. Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted became a slacker masterpiece because of the lazy musicianship and haphazard arrangements. Some albums are even criticized by dirty, sleazy rock critics (those bastards!) for sounding too produced and precise. Their supposed flaw is a lack of laziness or spontaneity.
On Absentee’s six-song mini-album (didn’t these use to be called EPs?), the lazy drawl of singer Dan Michaelson is impossible to ignore. It begins on the amazing “Rainy Days Swimming”. The song features excellent phrases: “It’s not love it’s not pain / It’s just cold in here.” The lazy vocals are backed by a lazy slide guitar, lazy harmonica, and non-lazy but still excellent backing vocals by Melinda Bronstein. In this case the strategy works. The track has a tortured folk vibe and seems to amble along to its conclusion.
The problem is that, like a lazy employee or a lazy eye, the laziness of Michaelson’s voice becomes tiring after enduring it track after track. “On the Hallway” (that’s right, “on” not “in”) is a fine song, but it builds to nothing more than the slow music and lazy vocals that begin it. The music gets louder in a forced attempt at a climax, but it simply quiets down again and stops. All the while, the vocals remain flat lined.
Speaking of Pavement, the opening lines of “In the Toilets Again” certainly remind me of a younger Stephen Malkmus wailing away on another country-tinged number. The chorus repeats a mantra destined to launch the song into a constant rotation on karaoke machines throughout the world: “Looks like we’ll be in the toilets again.” Check out another lyrical wonder from the song: “Having sex without coming / There’s no mess no babies / It’s just a chicken without stuffing.” That may have seemed insightful at the time Michaelson wrote it, but most listeners would never compare an unstuffed chicken to intercourse without orgasm.
The strong suits of the recording are the production values and the lyrics (most of the time). The last track, “Heather’s Golden Shoulder”, features one of the greatest opening lines in the history of music: “So I got fat and I got ugly.” It goes a bit downhill from there, but that’s inevitable. The arrangement of steel guitar, harmonica, and sweet backing vocals once again elevates the song past standard modern folk songs. Every instrument is clear in the mix, but the vocals drag down the song. The climax of this track, indicated by a change in rhythm, is another great line: “Heather’s golden shoulder / Makes me want to get a little bit older / Heather’s golden shoulder / I can’t belong to anyone.” But where’s the emotion in the voice? The words are more often spoken than sung. It can be an interesting tactic when used sparingly, especially for lyrics that would come from a tired singer: “I’m tired of being a man / Always something to bang.” But overall it’s frustrating.
The song titles are more shocking than revelatory: “My Dead Wife”, “Something to Bang”. They’re odd but not witty. Perhaps the oddest inclusion is a section of Grease’s “You’re the One that I Want” thrown at the end of an Absentee original. Without warning “My Dead Wife” segues into the line “So you better shape up”. After a few seconds, the words sound familiar, and you realize you’re listening to bubblegum pop escaping the lips of a morose British singer. What’s additionally bizarre is that the lyrics sound more sincere coming out of Michaelson’s mouth than they ever did when bantered between two 40-year-olds pretending to be in high school. The famous “do do do honey” line forces Michaelson’s voice to reach a high register thought impossible based upon earlier tracks.
While some critics may enjoy lazy-sounding releases, I do not. In fact, I think Slanted and Enchanted is highly overrated, though still interesting. Absentee did not invent the lazy aesthetic; they simply beat it to death and leave it to die on the side of the road. And Dan Michaelson doesn’t even seem to care.
// Notes from the Road
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