Rob Sharp should probably be a bit of a downer. The big obvious tragic reason would be that this is the first album he’s made since losing both parents and his sister in the span of a few months two years ago, but look at what he’s called his new band (back when they were more of a purely power-pop outfit they were called New West Motels – the near total personnel changes and sonic difference easily justifies the change), not to mention their first album.
Except that the album title comes from what Daniel Johnston says his music is about, and Sharp still has the melodic drive and catchiness of power-pop running through most of his work, and most importantly he’s using music as therapy in the sense of getting past his demons rather than wallowing in them. The opening “Runaway With Me” is more about helping the Other get away from their problems, not your own, and is dreamily lovestruck rather than anguished. That Sharp and company follow it up with the woozy, ebullient charge of “Cartwheels” (one of many songs here to benefit from his just-woke-up vocal chords) should be enough to reassure listeners worried that Facts About Funerals was going to be harrowing or just plain disturbing.
What it is instead is a strangely underrepresented (well, strange on the basis of how well it works here) branch of rock, a kind of indie country rock that benefits greatly from J Kardong’s pedal steel and Pete Colclasure’s often folksy piano but has them augment a traditional guitar/guitar/bass/drums rock outfit rather than dominate it. This approach works best when Facts About Funerals play relatively full-out on the likes of “Cartwheels” or the bar-ready massed vocals of “Black Whiskey”, not speeding through the tunes so much as surging. The grinding “Sunrise” also acquits itself well, Sharp’s wasted half-mumble anchoring six minutes of steady pulse until the effect becomes one of arduous struggle, not just medium tempo. He gasps out “look at me now, saving the best for last” with the kind of protesting-too-much irony that makes the song great rather than just good.
And while the band plays well together, most of Love Songs & Funeral Homes does fall into the good-not-great category; the band’s other main strength is Sharp’s refusal to veer away from open sentiment or even cliché, which gives his songwriting much of its impact but also on occasion just falls flat. “Lousy Kisser,” for example, is a good idea, but not only do they just not let the damn song die when it should, by the end the far-too-obvious reversal in Sharp’s lyrics is a good example of when to just leave things implicit. The avowal throughout that your lost love was a, yes, lousy kisser and therefore you don’t miss her is fine, in a 10cc-I’m-not-in-love kind of way – the ending “oh god I really do miss her a lot” part thuds to the ground and kind of wrecks the impact of the song as a whole.
Mostly, though, they avoid that kind of jarring mis-step, and so “Ruby Eirine” and “A Different Man” are touchingly direct in their protestations of love, and “Dumb” is self-lacerating about a bad relationship without the kinds of rationalizations that singers usually employ to make things sound better. Deciding to end the album with the delicate, lovely (and fittingly named) “Wedding Song” is a nice touch; not only is it Facts About Funerals’ most moving song, but it ends an album that’s been a mixed bag of joy and sorrow on the kind of note that leaves you sincerely hoping that Sharp wrote it before his own happy marriage (if, in fact, he’s married). It’s no compensation for his losses, but he’s made a sturdy, promising debut album, and one that suggests that Facts About Funerals are onto something with their intriguingly roughshod mix of melody, fuzz and twang.