[26 August 2013]
Appearances can be deceiving. Looking at the cheesy album cover of Dent May’s new release, Warm Blanket, you might expect a parody of a 1970s easy-listening “music for lovers” collection. Cueing up the first song, May’s multi-tracked, harmony-drenched voice croons “Turn up the speakers baby / Dim the lights down low” in a syrupy invitation. Ah, this fits right in with the cover picture, you may be thinking. But there’s a clue in the next line that this is actually a very different kind of album. “I’ve got something on my mind”, he sings. For, beneath the sunny exterior of Warm Blanket lies a summer album preoccupied with old age (even though May is only 27), loneliness and unrequited love. Luckily, the warm blanket of soothing pop-soul that envelopes the music keeps the album from being the wet blanket it could have been.
May recorded Warm Blanket over the course of a month, far-removed from his northern Mississippi home. In a purportedly haunted Victorian mansion near the ocean in St. Augustine, Florida, the multi-instrumentalist put down 11 opulently orchestrated tracks. Like a Todd Rundgren for the now generation, it’s remarkable that May played the majority of instruments on Warm Blanket, with only the occasional guest on violin or horns. And, despite his first album having the title The Good Feeling Music of Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele, there’s nary a uke to be heard on this, his third, release. Since that first album, May has set out to prove he’s more than a novelty act.
The isolation of living alone far from home in an unfamiliar locale may be partly responsible for the overall feel of melancholy and yearning for romantic connection hanging over the album’s lyrics. “I’m one small fish in a great big ocean / Lost in the sea / Spend too much time wishing and hoping / You could love me”, he sings on “Corner Piece”, just one of the similarly themed tracks on the album. In “Do I Cross Your Mind”, May sings of a girl he left behind and wonders whether she thinks about him (you can bet he thinks about her). In the last part of the song he echoes The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby”: “Don’t worry darlin’ / I’m coming home”. He repeats the line over and over, starting from a softly strummed acoustic guitar foundation, and building to a crescendo of horns, violin and drums to celebrate his triumphant return to her. Whether she’s even waiting for him is another question entirely.
In the dream waltz of “Yazoo”, May sings about falling for a crying girl at a party and hoping she’ll go home with him. “If I had the nerve to say what’s in our head / I feel that I may be alone until I’m dead / Please let it be me”, he despairs to himself. Even in the snappy disco-soul-pop confection of “Born Too Late”, he’s feeling lonely because he’s too young for the woman who’s the object of his affections.
Eventually all the pining seems to be getting to him and he’s ready to chuck it all in and give up. In “I’m Ready to Be Old”, the most musically sparse song found here, he proclaims “I’m ready to be old / And wrinkly and gray / I’m ready to be old / And it’s not far away / I’m sick of being young / It isn’t all that great”. Cue the violins (literally).
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are genuine sparks in the XTC-like “Let Them Talk”, a song of defiance against small town talk that he and a romantic interest have fallen prey to. Elsewhere, “Found a Friend” (not so dissimilar to “Best Friend” from May’s previous album Do Things) is lyrically and musically buoyant, as he revels in the possibilities of a newfound friendship atop a Pet Sounds worthy soundscape of sprightly piano and tambourine.
On an album that wears its love of The Beach Boys on its sleeve, it’s only fitting that the closing song “Summer is Over” echo the recent closing “Summer’s Gone” from last year’s comeback Beach Boys album, That’s Why God Made the Radio. Both songs mourn the passing of time and the loss of youth. Over a pedal steel guitar that can’t decide if it wants to be Hawaiian or hillbilly, May sings “I’m growing older / My sunny days are over”. Yet, while the Beach Boys song is sad and resigned, all minor chords and wistfulness, May’s song is almost jaunty. More importantly, he’s come to terms with it all: “But this year / I ain’t gonna shed a tear”. The light of hope still glimmers for him, despite the earlier songs of heartache, as he puts his faith in the prospect that “maybe this winter I will keep warm with you.” Chalk it up to May’s relative youth, or just a more upbeat outlook than the aging Beach Boys. Either way, it’ll be interesting to hear the music Dent May is turning out when he’s Brian Wilson’s age.