[10 February 2009]
The cover of Davy, the second album from Jason Schwartzmans’ Coconut Records, dispels any doubts about the movie star’s level of involvement. It’s just Schwartzman’s face, half-submerged in an anonymous body of water, barely peeking out, and covered in some kind of computer map. Is he sinking, emerging, or just treading water? It’s impossible to know, and that’s perhaps for the best. This vaguely troubling and possibly triumphant image is the perfect encapsulation of an album that is by turns bleak, hopeful, nonsensical, fantastic, and terribly honest. In a way, it’s whatever the listener wants it to be, the Barack Obama of albums: seemingly fraught with importance, but in reality a blank canvas primed for the projection of whatever emotions and motivations the consumer desires. Like all the best pop music.
Jason Schwartzman is that rare movie star-turned-musician who is in reality a little of both. His longtime band, Phantom Planet, started at a Pizza Hut when he was 14 (pretty good indie cred right there), and they had a major label contract three years later, a full year before he shot onto the national consciousness in Rushmore. So, when he calls himself “a drummer in a band that you’ve heard of” on his new album, it’s perhaps something more than put-on humility from the star of something like 25 movies and television shows. Perhaps this is actually how he sees himself.
Anyone’s who’s ever heard Phantom Planet’s “California” spool out underneath the opening credits of “The OC” knows that Schwartzman can summon a preternaturally arresting melody. Davy‘s songs, however, take this to another place, substituting a timeless piano and acoustic guitar-based brand of pop songcraft for the more timebound pop of Phantom Planet.
Its backward-looking, vaguely melancholy pop cuts chronicle a slew of diversely frustrated characters. The protagonists, who may or may not be Schwartzman himself, “[don’t] know what he wants to know”, wonder how things would have turned out “if I was younger”, bemoan when they “lost my dad”, absent-mindedly grouse that they “had a lot of points to make” once upon a time, and inform us that they are “young, but not for long”.
Like the very best bedroom pop (Beach Boys, Magnetic Fields, Russian Futurists), the songs collected here are deliriously catchy and instrumentally diverse. They manage to conjure a world of synth flourishes, strummy guitars, clangy pianos, and echoy shouts that invite a listener to get lost in them, all in under three minutes (the entire record doesn’t quite make it to 30 minutes). “Microphone”, the album’s opener, is all guitar, harmonica, and Schwartzman’s vocals. Its refrain “You are my voice / My microphone” could mean just enough different things to make it meaningful to basically everyone who hears it. “Saint Jerome” is a bouncy, almost Wings-ian pop piece that throws in what must be every instrument in Schwartzman’s garage (wooden blocks, what might be a riverboat bell, vintage synths, guitars, pianos, and more).
This relaxed and un-self-conscious record highlights what could be the best thing about movie star musical projects: they’re honest. Unlike a great deal of the albums by aspiring indie acts, these artists are not worried about how many albums they sell, riding a single record to fame, or appealing to the maximum number of America’s teenagers. They’re already rich and famous, after all. This gives them the freedom to make the music they most want to. This honest self-expression, freed of pedestrian concerns, produces some great music. The music industry could do much worse for its future.