The word “decay” usually brings with it visions of disgusting pieces of matter being broken down to go back to the earth. Frank Bango offers a glimpse of the sweeter side to the gory process with his fourth release, The Sweet Songs of Decay. The album, full of pop splendors and mellifluous orchestral rock, combines the singing and songwriting of Bango along with a bunch of his friends in the music business. Guest musicians such as Joan Wasser (Joan As Police Woman, Lou Reed, Sparklehorse), Sean Eden (Luna), and Steve Calhoun (Daniel Johnston and Vic Chesnutt) are but some of the friends who appear. The Magic Fingers, Bango’s longtime band, also play on the album.
The album opens with the sound of various songbirds twittering as the first few notes of “You Always Begin by Saying Goodbye” play on the guitar. Bango’s delicate touch to the tender words he coos adds a pleasant frailty. Hushed feminine “oohs” sound almost like a restrained wind section, continuing an accumulation of organic textures. As for the album’s visual side, “Bunny in a Bunny Suit” is recreated on the cover, as Bango sits next to a bespectacled Easter bunny. The deeper implications of the song are humorously spoofed in the campy photograph.
Rushing pop songs appear alongside drifty lullabies. For example, grand sweeping “Summerdress” precedes “Worm Was Wood”, a warm-vocaled, sluggish piece that is as comfortable putting the baby to sleep as it is winning the girl back from outside her window. Bango reaches into his lower register for gruff yet comforting tones as he begins the piece. Violins are plucked as the song increases volume until a string section smooths the refrain. The “oohs” make a return as Bango reverts back to his natural comfortable vocal range, a slightly-nasal tenor that moves from whisper to full-throttle.
The lofty pop tunes sometimes come with dark undertones. Bango and his friends utilize sonic tricks to create the dark atmosphere. For instance, in “International Sign for Sorry”, in addition to the lyrics, Bango adds pedal steel and occasional noises such as what sounds like a vacuum (“International Sign for Sorry”). The refrain has dissonant falsetto harmonies in unexpected intervals. At the end of the track, jostling slide guitar backs Bango’s repeating “I bet nobody ever loved you like this”. It almost seems like he’s placing a curse on the person he addresses. In the track’s aftermath, as feedback is settling down and the vacuum is turned off, a single piano chord sounds the end, segueing directly into the next track (“If A Plane Goes Down”). Hopefully this is of no relation to the curse he just placed. Thankfully, in the midst of the quiet piano-vocal track, Bango goes on to say, “If a plane should go down / I’ll always hope it’s the one that you missed”. Phew. “Plane” speaks to the warm place where he holds his first kiss, even if she had in the past done him wrong.
A spoken word sample from The Searchers begins “What This Place Needs”, inspiring the words of Bango’s refrain: “Maybe what this place needs is our bones in the ground”. Again, the dark subject matter is juxtaposed against an upbeat pop arrangement and Bango’s saccharine vocals. The darkest point of this record is Bango’s diagnosis of cancer the day after the record was mastered. The sweet pop melodies, even in their darkest moments, made while the decay of cancer was forming, provide the scariest aspect of Decay‘s dichotomy. Finally, the songbirds reprise their singing in “Gardenvariety”, providing a pleasant upturn to some of the stark realities Bango has faced.
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