There’s a certain kind of too-wide-eyed-to-wink irony that prompts John Brodeur to open his first solo album by singing in all sincerity: “I’m so into your scene / I want to be the only one.”
It seems Mr. Brodeur, whose previous incarnation as the frontman of Albany local favorites The Explosives gave him plenty of practice in the earnest-but-knowing department, figures that we’re smart enough realize he’s making use of a pop cliché in order to affect what the theorists sometimes call pastiche: reinvention from within. And, from his e-mail domain (popstar.com) to the artfully intimate photo of his cat (who also appears on the record) next to a guitar emblazoned with the letters DIVA, Brodeur makes no bones about his aesthetic aspirations.
To this end, Tiger Pop is scattered with both lyrical and musical hooks that if shopworn are not entirely unpleasant. It’s not exactly the “definition of catchy” as one press clipping asserted, but it’s pretty close. He almost breaks the sugar bank on songs like “Selfish” in which his soaring but straight-faced falsetto traces an unshakable melody, but he’s a bit closer to the melancholy navel-gazing of his admitted hero, Elliott Smith. “I’m leaving you today,” he sings without a trace of irony or remorse; then, as tasteful strings (taking over from acoustic guitar) swoop down to ride out the chorus he cries: “You make me Selfish Man.”
Oh yes, fans, this is what I sometimes call a “Relationship Record”, in which listeners follow Our Hero through every excruciating phase of a tortured relationship. Weakness, obsession, fear of intimacy-it’s all here. It starts with the aforementioned swinging declaration of love (which is, by the way, inaugurated with a whistle of the sort one often receives from men in passing cars), and by midway through the record he’s breaking up: “This pressure burns my skin / Please don’t pass my way again.”
In fact, Lou Barlow came to mind more than once as I listened to this album; words like “selfish”, or “burning”, or “pressure” or ideas about not being “really in control”, and being “sucked dry”, could have been culled from Barlow’s “sensitive rogue” arsenal. And, when he’s not playing push-me-pull-you with Madame X, songs like the jivey “Easier”, or the grindy “Sucker” leaven the loaf. In the first, Brodeur bemoans his weakness against a backdrop of rolling drums, organic sounds like a pencil tapping on a glass bottle, and not-quite-sweet backing vocals. He finally decides that the only answer would be a “gun to kill”. It’s not unlike Sebadoh’s “True Hardcore”, except that rather than directly mocking machismo (the enemy of any self-aware but red-blooded man) Brodeur simply adopts it and leaves it up to us to figure out whether or not he means it (HINT: he doesn’t). This, and the wistfulness of his compositions have a stoic sentimentalism that may well catapult Mr. Brodeur into the sort of alt-rock pinup status that Barlow once enjoyed.
But Brodeur isn’t intentionally invoking Barlow, not even the most sentimental moments of what someone once termed Barlow’s “David Crosby affliction”. And whatever the relationship, he hasn’t really got Smith’s scruffy sullen thing going on-he wants to be a diva, remember? Instead, he is careful to acknowledge the guidance of producer John Delehanty of Scarlet East Recording, who despite an apparently longwinded recording process encouraged Brodeur to experiment with more and varied orchestration. And Moby, who I suspect had more behind the scenes involvement than this simple credit would suggest, provides vocals on “Kitten”—the same track, you guessed it, on which the cat appears. For all that, however, outside of guitar, drum and bass, the album mostly features strings and organ and the occasional organic percussion sample, including the ever endearing handclap, for which several collaborators are credited in the liner notes.
By the album’s end Brodeur has reached the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel (the only cliché he actually thanks in the “Gratitude to the following…” section in the liner notes) with “Confidentially”. Brodeur finally sounds sincerely sincere, even vulnerable. It begins with a soaring but wistful line on the Hammond organ, punctuated by muffled drums and acoustic guitar. Brodeur’s tenor, belted and tense elsewhere on the album (when not catapulted into falsetto) approaches the authenticity of raw emotion as he sings, “And confidentially / I sometimes wish you’d stay / Keep it a secret / Don’t throw it away.” Muted backing vocals stream in over the Hammond, and even though it’s all over, I’m pretty sure I’m getting an ounce, if not a pound of flesh.
And that, I guess, is the problem for me: I wish he would either mean it or wink. As it is, it feels like he’s biting the tongue in his cheek to keep from laughing.