[19 March 2007]
Money Mark, the onetime Beastie Boy and long-time experimenter of pop forms is that peculiar kind of pop chameleon who may be revered within the industry, but never quite wins over the casual listener. Part of this may indeed be a modest commitment to the technicalities of a genre, be it roots-pop or instrumental funk. Money Mark certainly has the pedigree, certainly has the musical talent—his three previous solo albums, varying widely in style and tone, have been received generally positively even if they haven’t entered the larger cultural pantheon of “musicians worth knowing about”.
Well, whether you end up praising these songs’ minimal lack of ambition or finding it a limitation ultimately depends on how much you pay attention to the music: The closer you listen, the less you get rewarded. As an accompaniment to activities of daily living, well, you have something sweet and entirely appropriate. Is that enough for you?
A more pertinent question for Brand New by Tomorrow might be, “Do you like Jack Johnson?” The surfer-guitarist’s Brushfire Records label has released Money Mark’s latest effort, and the similarity between Johnson’s laid-back rootsy ethos and Money Mark’s is not limited to their shared Hawaiian blood. I have to admit, I’m a little skeptical of the authenticity of this newly popular kind of roots music. It’s not thematically linked to the protest songs of acts like the John Butler Trio or the gospel-tinged songs of Ben Harper, and the universally tackled theme (love) that resurfaces again here is dealt with in an unsatisfyingly simple way. Basically, I can’t imagine any real teenage surfer admitting to liking Money Mark, even if they do. Call it a kind of new easy listening alternative for the surf-punk set.
The album’s opening words don’t augur well for those who like some meat to their lyrical content. Slowly, as if he’s saying something profound, and savoring the “s” sounds at the end of each line, extending to a snake-like hiss, Money Mark sings: “Since you’ve been gone, I’ve lost my cleverness / And since you’ve walked away, I just can’t deal with this / Loneliness and emptiness”. There’s nothing wrong with the music, which establishes a nice groove and snuggles there for a comfortable three minutes. But the problem is the simplicity.
This simplicity, if it bugs you, will bug you throughout the whole album. There are bands that trade in a nostalgic kind of childhood reminiscence, like Boy Least Likely To, and (less successfully) singer-songwriters like Sebastien Schuller. From the opening “Color of Your Blues” to “Summer Blue”, lines like “You’re hurting people, and I disapprove / Destiny is not for us to choose” are cringe-worthy. You might expect this from a Donavon Frankenreiter, but from the fourth Beastie? Somehow it seems a bit disingenuous. But sometimes the simplicity is deserved, and redeemed by a lilting, breeze-blown guitar accompaniment. The surf-washed “Everyday I Die a Little” is all about the orchestral accompaniment. And “Pretend to Sleep”, one of the album’s undeniable highlights, approaches a Coldplay-like pop sensibility and the looping beauty of Jens Lekman as a sad, effective song. “Pretend to sleep, it’s your only guarantee.”
This isn’t all dire stuff, by any means. Money Mark’s an accomplished and experienced musician, and the songs here reflect that technical proficiency with tight arrangements and a self-knowledge that lets ideas go long before they become tedious. Even lyrically, Money Mark has some interesting moments—the trope of shining that propels “Radiate Nothing” is one such moment—that enables the album to become a wash of pleasant listening. The disappointment is that it never reaches for anything more. Brand New by Tomorrow may be great background music, but it isn’t anything but that.