For every band that has found salvation in noise and good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll stomp, there’s another act for whom precision and focus are the keys to creating music. In the case of John Dufilho, frontman for Dallas rockers the Deathray Davies, he’s mastered the former (2000’s The Return of the Drunken Ventriloquist and 2001’s The Day of the Ray); it’s time to embrace the latter philosophy. Sure enough, he does on Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory, his band’s first LP for Austin-based record label, Glurp.
Dufilho and his bandmates—multi-instrumentalists Jason Garner and Michael Crow together with contributors Chad Ferman, Jeff Johnston, Kevin Ingle, Mike Middleton—cultivate two musical paths on Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory: One is the “Broken Orchestra” (also referred to in some quarters as the “Bedroom Orchestra”, a name that provides a better sense of musical scope, sound and intimacy), which performs a four-part suite about a girl named Maggie who is blessed/cursed with an expressionless face; the other incarnation of the band is that of charming, fuzzy, psychedelic indie rockers.
The “Bedroom Orchestra” consists of three brief instrumental passages—one a minor-key piano and snare passage (“The Staring Contest”), one a demented yet delicate music box ditty (“You Can Keep a Straight Poker Face or Play Dead in the Movies”) and one a combination of the two (“Just What Is Maggie Thinking”). These interludes are partnered with a non-orchestral tune, the guitar-driven “Maggie Doesn’t Blink” which explains the titular character’s quirks (viz., a “stuck” face). It sounds like the musical adaptation of a short story Aimee Bender never wrote; it’s really quite charming.
The “straight-up” indie rock part of the album is equally as winning. Songs about love lost and found are swathed in horns, violins, keyboards, guitars and Dufilho’s reedy voice. “Gone against the Tide”, with its fuzzy guitar and surf/garage leanings prove that the band hasn’t forgotten its roots, while “I Was That Masked Man” finds Garner’s drums way up in the mix with Dufilho’s monster guitar riff and Michael Crow’s trumpet turns the whole thing into a long-lost (well, not that long-lost) Beulah b-side.
Proof (in this reviewer’s mind) that the Deathray Davies are operating at their peak: Their love songs don’t wallow in treacle. The narrator of “The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower” promises love to a “freaky girl” with “purple hair”—provided she doesn’t hear him sing. Heck, the song earned the band a spot on the “Nine Most Remarkable Things in Culture this Month” in the June issue of Esquire, if that sort of thing impresses you. Meanwhile, “Dominique”, which the liner notes tell was written for Garner to use to woo his future wife, infuses a lap steel pedal guitar with lyrics that suggest Dufilho has been hanging out with the guys in Fountains of Wayne: “When there’s nothing new / She’s been known to find another view / Dominique / You make me weak”. It’s an out-and-out charmer, and the last rhyme alone is enough to make me want to marry a woman named Dominique. And even though it’s not a love song, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the brilliant throwaway/album color and layout explanation, “How to Win at Roulette”, which alternates between dreamlike and pulsing while Dufilho sings “Red / Black / How much do I have? / How much do we need?”. Funny stuff and having the song slow down and ultimately stop like a roulette wheel is just a gas.
“Low and Silent” and the organ-driven “I Regret the Day I Tried to Steal Daniel’s Ego” present a grittier sound from the band, and are certainly “fun” enough—especially the former’s spaghetti-Western vibe—but in the context of the album (and here my inner wuss emerges) they just aren’t as vital as the sweet songs.
After so many entertaining tunes, it’s a shame I can’t muster more excitement for the title track. As dark as its name suggests, it opens with a delicate, plucked guitar, half-whispered, filtered vocals and a xylophone tune that echoes the Bedroom Orchestra mini-suites. The song swells as Dufilho bellows “I know soon I’ll be howling”. Others may find the song to be the culmination of the band’s new approach, but to these ears, it’s too weird and too reserved.
I’m not sure when I started writing publicity copy for the Deathray Davies, but Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory is a promising new direction from one of Dallas’ finest acts. Radio is cruel, so do a little digging and find the album.