[28 January 2009]
It’s not for nothing that the Music Lovers chose to reference an early ‘70s Ken Russell film with their name. Partly a nod to their unabashed anglophilia—frontman Matthew Edwards was originally born in Birmingham before he relocated to San Francisco, and the band frequently employs the jangly melodies and on-the-sleeve literateness of the poppier British New Wave bands—it also serves to suggest the kind of sensuous melodrama the band employs, albeit at a much higher level than Russell’s needlessly scandalized biopic: they’ve taken all of the lushness and none of tawdriness. The result is something like a melancholy cabaret act in the middle of ‘80s London, in spirit if not necessarily in sound.
At the heart of it all is Edwards, a sharp, spry songwriter with a Brit-soul baritone, a man capable of indulging full-on dramatics, but with a strong sense of when to go big and when to stay small. He’s particularly good when he ruminates on life’s little disappointments, indulging both the pros and cons of such, whether that’s longing for love or simply lamenting wasted time.
There’s a healthy mixture of both on “The Blackout”, the opener to the group’s third full-length, Masculine Feminine. Largely ignoring the literal meaning for a metaphoric take on the aimless wandering of smart, young things, he sings of looking for love and mourns time misspent with the rather sumptuous “My hungry years were all spent / Buying coke with the rent / Not recompensed / And so I sold a tawdry tale of my years in the blackout” over a bumpy bass line and easily strummed guitar. His band joins in for a fleshy chorus, with swirling strings and shattered drums underneath the equally wistful “I’m in love with a girl who tears my / Heart out / As she ties me to the bed, her sweetest nothings are all said / I think it’s time I got out”. The dynamic plays off each other until Edwards finally finds a kind of salvation in appreciating the drifting, recognizing the personality formation that was going on all along.
A similar push-and-pull—soft and slow versus upbeat, intelligent mopiness versus hard-won maturity, muted pessimism versus equally muted optimism—extends throughout the album. The title track bounces along with driving snare hits and playful organ, while Edwards fights against looking on the bright side with lines like, “And it stands to reason / Well, it’s tantamount to treason / Well, we just might get to win one”. The baroque “Autumn Royal” slows right back down, tentative strings perfectly matched to Edwards’s near-paranoid wail of “Gotta tread softly now / Or you might disappear”, the supposed bliss of love conjuring up worries of what might be lost.
The album reaches its high point with “The Weekender”, an almost perfect synthesis of the band’s myriad talents. The music here is something like a dirge, lightly plucked guitar playing off mournful horns, chamber strings and a haunting wail setting a suitably mournful mood. But Edwards never fully slips into pessimism, streaks off sunlight still crossing the creaky old floorboards where he’s hidden. Singing about a soul destined to forever be someone’s weekend entertainment, there is both beauty and melancholy, honest appreciation of time spent with some lovely creature, but an appropriate heavy-heartedness when Edwards wails “All you want / Is to wake and to know / She’ll be there” with the indisputable knowledge that it will never happen.
That the band can work in such opposing emotions and styles without ever feeling like they’re giving one short shrift speaks highly of their talent as both musicians and storytellers. Masculine Feminine is rife with plenty of examples of the same, a roundly solid record of thoughtful, mature pop that never chokes itself with pensiveness. If you ever see their name on a cabaret marquee, be sure to stop in.