[2 October 2011]
Listen to the Malefactors of Great Wealth’s excellent five-song EP, properly called Today Is the Best Day of My Life by The Malefactors of Great Wealth, and imagine that the men in these songs are all, in fact, the same man. He stands at a distance from the listener, wrapped in pop coolness and changing faces: the laconic know-it-all in “Today” and “Clean”, the gigolo of “Oaf to Hobo” and the hushed reporter in the driving pop song “Prisontown” who sidles up to you out of nowhere and says flatly, “Some of the people here are dangerous / Some of the people here are famous”. They are? Then you ask why he’s talking to you. Chimes ring in the song’s chorus, reminding you of church, or a prison yard bell, or the signal for the last train out of town.
Whether or not his narrators are one and the same, or variations on a type, frontman J.P. Olsen’s songwriting — around which The Malefactors of Great Wealth is built — invites your consideration. Olsen is known in too-few circles for his excellent country-rock band The Beetkeepers and a project with singer-songwriter Tim Easton called Burn Barrel. Both highlighted Olsen’s wry and emotional character portraits; this album is a character’s performance. Maybe the act begins with the conceptual art on the EP’s cover: Our man sits in a metal lawn chair wrapped in tin foil; the crushed layers peel away on their own, and it seems like nothing may be inside…and then he appears stage left, in a spotlight: “Today…,” he croons.
Throughout the record, the narrator works you over with showmanship right out of the 19th century: comedy, tragedy, magic, current events — whatever he thinks you might need, or whatever he needs to win you over. But the album is more invention than revival. In “Oaf to Hobo”, Olsen mixes blues boasting and the vaguely supernatural pop promises of Sammy Davis Jr.‘s “Candyman” into a country lecher’s come-on. After claiming to have “turned an oaf into a hobo”, the narrator adds that he “changed him back”. Aren’t you impressed? Behind Tony Scherr’s bird-like slide guitar and a toy piano from a flea market, he moves in: “That dress, it becomes you / I like the way you smell”. The jig’s up. Mississippi John Hurt is around the corner singing about his nine-inch candy stick, but our man could be holding a copy of The Atlantic.
Part of the fun in watching any amateur magician is hoping his tricks fail, and as our narrator continues talking about himself in “Clean”, the rabbit gets loose:
I’m gonna sue this world / I’m getting out of this world
For a breach of contract / for this empty promise
This broken car I derive / most of my pleasure from.
My life has no beginnings / no middles, no ends.
The way Olsen’s tenor lilts “car” turns the word into the sum of the man’s entire life; “derive” exposes that life as a shambles. The song keeps unraveling, changing keys, melodies, until it finds its confidence. In “Today”, which opens the digital version of the album, our man is rocking a posh Coconut Grove lounge alongside Eleanor Masterson’s superb violin, and of course, he can barely contain himself. Another boast immediately goes wrong:
Today: It’s been a very sexy kind of day
And when I say sexy, I don’t mean it in the…kind of way
That might make a woman close her eyes
And wish that she was far away…from me
With subtle phrasing and expressiveness, Olsen’s voice seems to peer at you, alive with anxiety as the narrator tests the limits of his seductive powers. That voice and the songs it carries are wrapped in a chilly pop sound produced by Easton and Anton Fier of the Golden Palominos and supported by The Madison Square Gardeners, which is essentially Olsen’s lithe backing band. Masterson’s violin and viola, and the leads and vocals of guests including Scherr, Matt Newman of the Randies, and Matt Surgeson of the late, lamented Jive Turkeys, are all tasteful — sometimes too much so, but it keeps the spotlight on Olsen, whose magic far exceeds that of his hapless protagonist.
Never more so than on “True Ways”, when the narrator’s pretense drains away. The devastating ballad dates back to the Beetkeepers and is one of a pair covered by Tim Easton on his 2003 record, Break Your Mother’s Heart. Here, Easton picks a melancholy acoustic guitar and ominous piano under Masterson’s nervous violin as the shell-shocked narrator sings, “You know, our love would last forever/if we’d only stay interested”. The song is so tender, so cutting, you imagine him standing backstage between the folds of the curtains, the personae dropped briefly before he goes back on-stage.