Have you ever noticed the tendency of sorority girls and yuppies to be photographed almost exclusively as part of a pack? If you know a sorority girl or 22-year old Jetta-driving marketing exec, or you are one yourself, you know what I’m talking about: photos of up to 20 bottle-blonde, teeth-whitened, sex-on-the-beach sipping young women sitting arm-in-arm around a table full of empty glasses. Being photographed alone is too vulnerable, a sign of weakness, something to be avoided at all costs. Listening to Broken Social Scenester Jason Collett’s latest solo effort is a little like looking at one of these pictures. The undeniably talented singer/songwriter hides behind so many instruments, textures, clever lines and cocky poses that it’s hard to know what he means and if he means it at all.
The average song on Idols features no less than seven players, and hell, friends are good if you’ve got ‘em. Most songs, like “Brownie Hawkeye”, start out efficiently enough before blowing up into theatrics, and the band has the chops to pull it off. But the cumulative weight of all that noise often obscures the essentials of the song, voiding their emotional impact. Collett has an interesting writing style, he doesn’t knock you over the head with idiosyncrasy, choosing instead to twist his phrases just enough to make you blush on the fifth listen: “Weaving from shoulder to shoulder/ We never grew up, we just got older/ I chewed a hole right through my heart/ From the very start/ Anticipating the myth of you.” But those lines never have a chance to ring true in the song, as intriguing as they are on the page. Collett tosses them off with affected indifference. It’s not as noticeable as the affected passion you hear on pop radio, but it can be just as annoying. He’s kin in this respect to Ryan Adams, who does this shit all of the time. And like with Ryan Adams, it’s aggravating mostly because the potential for greatness is equally clear.
“We All Lose One Another” is much more effective, utilizing its big arrangement for purposes other than distraction. It’s got a great pop hook which sounds honest, earned, and affecting, “We all lose one another along the way.” It’s simple, but it works because of what it follows: gorgeous lines like “So this is the day of the dead/ Of St. Jude and Guadeloupe/ Apples and oranges/ And silver coins for ghosts to gamble with.” Furthermore, Collett sings in a relatively straightforward manner with a minimum of hip vocal inflections. This brings listeners closer to the song instead of holding them at a distance. To return to the yuppie picture metaphor, it’s as if one of the girls in the photo is rolling her eyes or scratching her armpit instead of flashing those pearly whites—it’s the real thing, unposed.
The Josh Rouse-like opener “Fire” also puts its mini-orchestra to good use in a charming piece of weirdo-pop. The duet “Hangover Days” hits its marks too with Collett offering “I thanked you for being honest” and Emily Haines giving back “I told you ‘don’t pull that shit on me’”. The lyrics and music are equally sassy, smart, and playful. Those successes make tunes like the jangly, alt-country-ish “Parry Sound” and the hushed “Tinsel and Sawdust” all the more frustrating. On both, Collett’s quavering hangdog whisper comes off just a wee bit schticky, like he’s performing. The material’s too good to perform, just sing it! Performing is another umbrella drink tumbler to hide behind. I’d rather pay full admission to hear Collett sing “Feral Republic”. Everything in that shuffling country-rock tune is real, drawing the lives of “young urban pioneers” in exacting detail, from “red nocturnal streets” to “the spent love of an unmade bed/ With a balcony view of the old city’s silhouette.” Hearing that most perfect moment on the hit-and-miss Idols in Exile makes me want to shout for joy and raze every red brick, casual sit-down chain restaurant in a 50-mile radius to the fucking ground. If and when Collett goes back to the “ghost towns with the old grandeur” I’ll gladly follow.