[23 September 2007]
There is a lot of new music out there these days. And though, sure, the MySpace revolution means that a lot of it is pretty amateurish, not-all-that-impressive stuff, there’s also a remarkable amount of it that’s actually pretty darned good. It’s probably just math; it’s easier to record an album now than ever before, and with more people making more music, you’re bound to end up with a lot of good material. And yet, despite all this, it seems to be as hard as ever to find a record that is clearly head and shoulders above the rest. An album really worth calling a masterpiece still only comes along once in a very long while. And that’s what makes The Shredding Tears such an exciting record. It’s the fifteen-song debut from 23 year-old Bryan Scary—and there’s no denying that it’s a masterpiece from start to finish.
It doesn’t take long to realize that something special might be going on. The album’s opening track, “A Stab at the Sun”, showcases the album’s strengths. It kicks off with a little AM radio-style jingle intro (“Straight from our hearts to your ears / It’s the fabulous Shredding Tears!”) before moving into the heart of the song—a sprawling epic boiled down into just under five minutes of heavy pianos, Beach Boys harmonies, and electric guitars (now raw, now delicately picked, now strummed and slightly out of tune). The track moves from gentle pop tune, to raging cacophony, to melancholy lament, and back again before finally coming together in a soaring climax that transitions into the next song.
Scary is obviously a fan of the glory days of classic rock and roll, and while he’s earned more than a few comparisons to contemporaries like the Fiery Furnaces, he more obviously owes a debt to a host of impressive late ‘60s and early ‘70s influences—the late- and solo-era Beatles, David Bowie, Queen, ELO, the Kinks, Brian Eno, maybe even Elton John, Lou Reed, Brian Wilson, or the New York Dolls—and he stands up remarkably well to all of them. “A Stab at the Sun” sets the table for an album worth of songs that are equally ambitious and successful.
The Shredding Tears is chock-full of four- and five-minute pop symphonies, brimming with catchy hooks, quirky characters, and nifty production tricks, all built on a foundation of dramatic pianos, buzzing guitars and Scary’s versatile vocals. Throughout the record, the Chicago-born songwriter refuses to sit on any one idea or sound for more than a few bars, shifting restlessly between glam rock, prog rock, pop rock, psychedelic rock and musical theatre—usually all within the length of one song. “The Lessons I Learned” moves from gentle lullaby waltz to full out rocker and back again, while “Mrs. Gracy’s Revenge” starts off straight-forwardly enough, but supplies everything from kazoos to a jazzy guitar solo before it comes to a close. This kind of wild creativity could easily result in a series of songs that feel disjointed and overcrowded, but Scary is careful to have everything flow naturally from one idea to the next. The only time it starts to feel a little bit too forced is in “The Tumbling Marguerite/Hold on George” (which cuts between dark and foreboding guitars, a tropical beat, and a circus organ during its opening minute), but even then, it’s not for long. Meanwhile, a song like “Desdemona’s Leaving Town”, which covers less varied ground, is able to rely on an infectious chorus and less ambitious changes to achieve equal success. The result is an album that manages to be simultaneously diverse but seamless, dark but whimsical, and traditional but relentlesslyy inventive.
The fact that Scary plays and sings every note on the album (except for the drums), makes the whole thing even more impressive. (His backing band, the Shredding Tears, only support him when he’s playing live.) You’d never guess that songs this dense and detailed could be conjured from the brain of just one man; you’d be much more likely to guess that they were the product of a sprawling collective of talented musicians. He hasn’t cut any corners, using patience to make up for what he lacks in numbers. He worked alone on the record for three years, laying down what must have been dozens of tracks on each tune, gradually building his lush pop music cabaret from within the artsy bowels of his Brooklyn loft (apparently also home to, among other things, several mannequins and a giant painting of a bloodied Christ—which makes total sense).
The Shredding Tears was released in the States on Halloween of last year, and it’s hard to imagine why it didn’t make more of an immediate splash. Hopefully, its British release this summer will give it a second lease on life. I can’t imagine you’d find many people in either country who wouldn’t agree that this is one of the best records released in the last couple of years. We might be hearing more new music now than ever before, but there are still precious few albums that truly and honestly deserve to be called masterpieces. Bryan Scary’s debut is one of them.