[5 August 2008]
“The morning choir is gonna sing for you / And it’s such a pretty song”, the Thin Man’s Kennedy Greenrod sings on “If Stars Are Bars…”, which begs the question: what constitutes prettiness? Through the course of four increasingly assured albums, of which Spectres is the latest, you’d be hard pressed to characterize the Thin Man’s music as pretty, at least in a conventional sense. But damning the narrowness of convention, Spectres weaves some of Greenrod’s most pastoral and, yes, pretty songs with the grimy, noir rock the band has been engaged in for years.
The trademarks of the band’s sound are intact—a penchant for classic Americana and Gypsy melodies, Greenrod’s Chicago-via-Newcastle UK drawl, and a tendency towards waltz measures—but since 2005’s impressive Greasy Heart, the Thin Man’s facility has only grown. Without a doubt, the songs collected on Spectres include some of the band’s finest to date. To start at the end, closer “Cool in Ze Pool” is the essence of the album’s direction distilled, applying Greenrod’s unique songwriting sensibility towards rural as well as urban forms. A rambling and rolling do-si-do acoustic figure is accented by twangy leads and fills that evoke the moonlit pond setting of the song’s lyrics. Similarly, “Polar Bears & Lollipops” rolls out big blue skies, puffy clouds, and bittersweet couplets about growing up and growing old. It’s balmy yet deceptively edged. “Learn to shake hands / Learn to drive a car” Greenrod ticks off as coming-of-age before “Learn how to fuck and stare at the stars”, while an accordion gently wheezes and Saleem Dhamee’s guitar rolls curlicues. Flirting with nostalgia musically and lyrically, the band ultimately subverts rose-tinted visions of our pasts and actions. The rope to the sky that the singer wants to climb as a child in “Polar Bears” ends with a noose.
“Optimist’s Blues” doesn’t so much break with convention—adhering firmly to the three-chord, A/A/B/A structure—as it flies in the face of the recent trend of stripped-down, bare-boned blues. Though it begins simply enough with tambourine taps and a burbling lead guitar, the song builds in noise, swagger, and defiance, even working in a horn section for a brief spell. “The sun’s gonna shine on me and mine once more” is a popular blues theme, but whereas it’s mostly employed as wishful thinking, the Thin Man wields it as declaration bordering on threat that the “one thousand reasons not to go to work no more” are nigh to be cashed in. “Leaving St. Mary’s” is likewise frenzied and nimble; even its quieter breakdowns are fraught with tension, before the song notches up even higher into an explosive climax.
The ability of the Thin Man to show vulnerability at its most bruising, and to show its teeth at its most beautiful, is its greatest gift, and the quality most notably developed on Spectres. The often overt cabaret influence of past efforts has steeped in the band long enough to inform the music’s heightened drama and showmanship, but not dominate. There’s not one overriding element on the album from song to song beyond Greenrod’s unique voice, yet each song feels of a piece. From the cavernous stomp of “Sirens” to the disheveled ‘50s sing-along “The Last Dance”, the band sounds freer than ever to put its hooks into whatever style it feels compelled to make its own. That freedom, combined with the sense of diligent purpose (and good humor) of all bands chasing something more lasting and substantial than fame, will hopefully bring the band much deserved renown nonetheless.