Hardly anyone’s living the rock lifestyle anymore. Admit it, last time you saw the shit-hot bands of the moment at the dive downtown, they were all sucking down Dasanis and they looked kind of ripped, like they spent a fair amount of time on the nautilus. Well, here’s to them, long may they run, literally, but next time you’re aching for a descent into the maelstrom, a ride on Zeppelin’s custom jet, an evening with Bolan or Morrison where you’d best end up sleeping on your stomach just for safety ... well, what you want is Mark Mallman.
Here on his seventh full-length, the glam-rocking Minnesotan cranks out flash-pot, binge-celebrating anthems of surprising cleverness. Red wine is the main character here, the starring role in a good half the songs, but any drug will do—caffeine, nicotine, marijuana, morphine, epidrine, nitrate, Coca Cola, cocaine. To quote Mr. Mallman, “I’m looking for substance / But all I found is substances.”
These are songs about damaged hedonism, embellished with glittery guitar lines and late-night piano trills. “Death Wish”, with ominous swoops of strings, sounds like a Cale-produced rock operetta, bursting at the chorus into 1970s Springsteen abandon. It’s large scale, not-entirely-sincere rock mythicism, underlined with the kind of hooks and flourishes that Aerosmith, Badfinger and Elton John turned into platinum sellers. But this being 2006, it comes across as parody. “Pompeii”, where a destructive lover is likened to the ancient volcano disaster, is as smart and incisive and self-loathing as any Darnielle composition ... but it’s italicized and ironicized with outsized rock arrangements.
You need this disconnect to make the songs work. That’s why the rockers make more sense than the slow songs. Power ballads like “Pandora’s Bottle” and “My, My, I Got So High” sound just as flaccid and lifeless as the 1970s slow dances which inspired them, and the whimsical lilt of “Persuasion” feels forced and overjolly. Much better are the hard soul-influenced glam rockers like “After the Hangover”, which borrows orgiastic female vocals from Dark Side of the Moon and piano bar raffishness from Randy Newman. “Knockout on 22nd Street” transcends its influences, too, namely Clarence Clemons-ish sax riffs and a guitar solo taken straight off Night at the Opera.
Like Bobby Conn and John Petkovic of Cobra Verde, Mark Mallman is apparently a very smart guy in love with a fairly ridiculous era in rock and roll. The great pleasure of Between the Devil and Middle C is watching this incisive intelligence rear its head from big, dumbass rock riffs, draw blood and then duck back down. You can almost see his shit-eating grin in album-making cuts like “Death Wish” and “Pompeii.” Mallman and his band—a very skilled ensemble that includes Red Start’s Jeremy Ylvisaker, the Melismatic’s Kathy Hixon-Smith and Ryan Smith, and Tapes ‘N Tapes’ Erik Applewhite—are having way too much fun to care whether you think their songs are smart or stupid. And you can bet they’re not drinking mineral water, either.