A Bit of an Epic
“With wasted ways and summer days / And frightwigs have eclipsed the moon / On stout and lime and evening time / And ‘I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city . . .’ / And don’t you know it was the government / Stopped the Beach Boys from releasing Smile / Yes it’s still done harm / Look at the way we’ve kept the farm / With its endless revisions / And it makes me want to smash the masses / And we could fall in love . . .”
That bit of lyrics from “Surfside Motel”, by Doleful Lions singer/songwriter Jonathan Scott has been in my head for a week. The song is partially an esoteric tribute (an ode to the Beach Boys, which includes a quote from their song “Heroes and Villains”), part stream-of-consciousness babbling, part pretentious scrawling, but then again, so are nearly all of Michael Stipe’s lyrics. The point is, Scott, like Stipe, manages to make the combination work. With spare acoustic guitars, plaintive vocal harmonies, and the smallest, most subtle hint of an orchestra that would make both Brian Wilson and Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner smile in appreciation, “Surfside Motel” perfectly encapsulates what the entire new album by the Doleful Lions sounds like. Out Like a Lamb is one of the most innocuous, oh-pardon-me-while-I-blow-your-mind epics you’ll come across.
Out Like a Lamb is the Doleful Lions’ fourth album, and the current version of the band’s lineup has been pared down to a trio: Scott at the helm, with help from David Jackson and Aynsley Pirtle (there’s no indication as to who plays what instrument on the album). The album is quiet in its approach, but grandiose in its execution, reflected wonderfully by the photos of various skies in the CD booklet. It sounds big without getting too overblown.
“Saturday Mansions” starts off the album, as a dreamy keyboard intro fades in, before being interrupted by a light acoustic guitar riff, a sprightly beat, and sunny lyrics sung by Aynsley Pirtle: “Open the door and go outside / It’s Saturday”. With Pirtle’s entrancing, feminine vocals, the song paints a picture of “early breezes / And frosty freezes”, sounding like Belle & Sebastian in their prime, but as the song fades out in the end, the backing “ah-ah” vocals remain up front in the mix, and carry on a cappella for several bars, almost sounding like a monks’ chant, replacing the song’s whimsy and sunniness with funereal majesty and darkness. “Stand in the Colosseum” immediately begins right after, as Scott delivers a slow, angry anti-technology diatribe (or at least, that’s what it seems to me), pitting the enemy hiding in their “Pentium bunker”, versus the “riders of the analogue phoenix” as an acoustic guitar plays on, with light keyboard accompaniment, and electric guitar fills, a la “Pale Blue Eyes”. “I Can Take You to the Sun” follows, and is a completely different change of direction, where its vocal harmonies and subject matter (“The phantom flowers fool the showers / Raining in your mind”) sound like an updated version of Revolver-era George Harrison. After you get through the light beauty of “Surfside Motel”, you feel like you’ve heard a ton of music, but realize that only 15 minutes have passed, and you’re just one third of the way through the CD.
So what comes next? Well, a musical history of the Freemasons, of course. “1723”, a folksy, acoustic guitar waltz sung by Pirtle, possesses lofty collegian wordiness (“The ancients they sing the Ballad of Hiram / Injected with a shadow serum”) and a lilting melody that beguiles as much as it bewilders. The title track is a bit more simple, as it starts with a drum machine, acoustic guitar, and droning Sigur Ros-like guitar that, like the tones of the Icelandic band, builds and builds for two minutes, but instead of climaxing, it cuts off abruptly in an unsettling moment of tape-us interruptus, and Scott re-starts the acoustic guitar-drum machine sound, singing simple verses: “I needed to break the bonds of this world / On wings of my leaving”. Scott then gets biblical on us on the next two tracks: the wry, Simon & Garfunkel-inspired “Dear Lazarus” (“Were you grateful / When he rolled the stone away / Or had the stench of days / Swallowed your chance to live again?”), and the upbeat, hook-laden “Hey Spartacus”, which tries to summon the spirit of the Roman warrior to set things right in the modern world.
The lush “Tanah Lot” (sung beautifully by Pirtle) tells the tale of the Indonesian temple, though anyone who either has never been to Bali or doesn’t have access to a Google search will be a bit bewildered (by the way . . . erm, thanks, Google). “When We Were Wolves” is a quiet fantasy tale in the same vein as early King Crimson. “Texas is Beautiful” is a bittersweet look back at a visit to the southern state (“The canyons that spoke / Of rattlesnakes spinning away in the sun / Texas is beautiful / Now that I have gone”), the only song on Out Like a Lamb that turns the volume up as it careens for a Mercury Revved up six minutes. The album closes with another quiet number in “Graveyards of Swallows”, where Scott carries on again about leaving this world behind, singing, “I know I’ll leave this world of violence / And celebrates the world of silence / In castles of ancient kindness.”
By now, you’re either tired of Scott’s lyrical loftiness, or just sitting back, enjoying the ride. I tended to ignore Scott’s pretensions and just let the music take me away. He can start to sound as pretentious as a graduate student trying to show everyone how clever he is, but the low-key inventiveness of the Doleful Lions’ music more than makes up for it. There are moments during Out Like a Lamb that make you wish that R.E.M. followed up Automatic For the People with an album like this one, but R.E.M. are long dead, and it’s time for someone else to pick up the slack. Out Like a Lamb isn’t perfect, but at least they tried to be perfect. Go listen to “Surfside Motel” dozen times and let yourself fall in love with the Doleful Lions.