Living Up to Expectations
While I would maintain that there’s never truly been a shortage of singer-songwriters working in the music industry, it’s certainly apparent that mainstream media outlets—and, by extension, mainstream media audiences—have buried the songwriter legacy under a mountain of easily digestible material. Witness the criminal ignorance of Kevin Tihista’s way with a pen.
Alright, fine, too much hyperbole. After all, there’s a fair amount of scene buzz around nouveau-folkies like Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart, and every time a Damon Gough track plays, a critic gets his wings. Add to that the genuine loss felt after the suicide of Elliott Smith, and you might be convinced that the premise of pop songwriter as verified genius isn’t totally dead. But for all that, these artists tend to remain under the radar outside of critics’ circles and college campuses. It doesn’t look like Rufus Wainwright is going to be their savior, either.
The fact remains that Tihista should be up there with those names, mentioned in the same breath, and help up in the same regard. But—and here’s the rub—it’s probably as much his own fault as any that he’s not.
Tihista remains a shy, reclusive figure in the world of indie pop, a bedroom musician who crafts lovely pure pop gems of bittersweet anguish and delight. It might be tempting to blame the rise of emo and retro indie rock for the continued cold shoulder that popsters like this receive, but in reality, sometimes kids just wanna rock, and they’re not likely to get what they want from the musical introverts. No, in reality, indie pop, pure pop, undergound pop whatever you want to call it, it’s a scene for dilettantes.
So, dilettantes, listen up! You should be checking out Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror at your earliest convenience, particularly the new release, Wake Up Captain. If you’ve followed along with any of Tihista’s ventures in the past, and found his discs to come up slightly wanting, then Wake Up Captain will be the disc that causes you to reevaluate the man and his music. It’s a great album. In fact, it’s almost perfect, as indie pop records go… almost.
Tihista’s grown up some since Don’t Breathe a Word and Judo, and the maturity shows in his songwriting as well as the compositions. But the one thing that simultaneously informs his character and holds him back remains a kind of restraint that’s part diffidence and part production. Wake Up Captain is a typically “soft” album—it’s got hooks aplenty, but the whole sound of the disc is so muted that it rolls along at kind of a shuffling pace and middling intensity. Truly, some of these songs could be that much better if the levels were adjusted and the sound brought up. Tihista is the kind of pop musician who begs for headphone or bedroom listening, but you’re gonna have to turn it way up to hear all the nuances in the music.
And the disappointing thing is that with a bolder or more confident approach, these tracks have the potential to rival a Gough or a Stephin Merritt. One only has to listen to tracks like “Family Curse” or “Good Wings” or “It’s Over” to feel it, and realize that Tihista’s got the chops. If you were to open up the lyric sheet, you might question this assessment, and admittedly the songs don’t look like a whole lot on paper, but when they’re married to Tihista’s high voice and chamber pop compositions, the songs spring to life. Full of wry wit and humor, it’s Tihista’s unassuming nature that makes these songs all the more wonderful, yet you can’t help but want him to punch things up a bit at the same time. The press kit on the album calls Wake Up Captain a song cycle on the level of XTC’s Skylarking, and while there are favorable comparisons, this disc doesn’t breathe with the same amount of life and exuberance as that classic.
Things start off well enough, with the orchestrated strains of an ironically titled “Outro” opening things up and giving way to the mixed acoustic/electric pop of “Real Life”, which reintroduces Tihista’s breathy and sweet melancholy in lyrics that set up the rest of the album’s lamenting tone. Combined with the following track, “Oh”, and the album’s title and nautical cover art, you’re briefly fooled that this will be a collection of mopey, emo-ish songs where the ocean plays an all too obvious role as symbol, but it drops that notion early on.
This is, however, a disc of broken love songs with a generally forlorn attitude. That consistency paired with the first few tracks’ similar use of acoustic guitars, fuzzy electrics in the background, and swirling keyboards and synths gives the first part of the album a kind of lackluster uniformity. In some ways, Tihista seems like he’s marrying Morrissey to Thom Yorke for these tracks (albeit in a classic pop framework rather than anything experimental), and it comes to a head on “Ride”, which verges on Radiohead-lite territory (if you could imagine The Bends punctuated with ringing brass). Between that and the acoustic & horns balladry of songs like “O.K.”, Wake Up Captain would be a nice disc, but not entirely remarkable.
So when “Family Curse” bursts out of nowhere, nine songs into the disc (and following the lethargic “Godsend”), the dose of up-front electric guitars, stepped-up beats, and deep basslines comes as something of a shock. Not only that, but out of the general sadness of the previous tracks, there’s a sense of wit to this beautiful expose of painfully shy adolescence that perks up the disc just as it gets an injection of rock. This same warped feeling follows in the darkly humorous “Good Wings”, which is almost like a demented Simon and Garfunkle ode to alcoholism. And from that point on, the album becomes a wry, warm, if self-indulgently negative friend.
Tihista has been accused of being uninventive and safe in terms of his compositions in the past, and plenty of Wake Up Captain feels familiar and easy, but the sudden variety of everything from “Family Curse” on is a breath of fresh life for the disc. And there’s plenty of music left. At seventeen tracks, there’s no lack of material here if you get over the initial hump. The sing-along pop notion of “It’s Over” gives way to a charmingly out-of-place and pleasantly unexpected dance beat on the New Romantic-inflected “Yummy”—featuring the brutal cheer of a chorus that proclaims “Yummy, yummy, yummy / I’ve got drugs in my tummy / To keep me loving you”. And while the whole disc is predicated on broken-heartedness, the closing track, “This Is an Offering”, leaves off on a sudden hopeful note, a last uplifting promise that keeps Wake Up Captain from sinking under the weight of its cynicism.
While this album could have been pared down some near the beginning, Wake Up Captain is still a satisfying experience. It still leaves you wishing for a bolder production in places, but by the end you understand that such a thing just wouldn’t be Tihista. What you will come away with is the feeling that, if you’re an indie pop dilettante like me, now is the time to start paying some serious attention to Kevin Tihista, because it won’t be long before he’s mentioned in the same breath as some of his more established contemporaries. Maybe—and this is a big maybe—by that time the pop singer-songwriter will have come back into fashion as well.