I think this guy Owen Holmes isn’t as clever as he’d like to be. He’s the man behind the moniker Gospel Music, an act whose output doesn’t have anything to do with gospel music, but does have plenty to do with jaunty acoustic pop and twee love songs. Holmes has this annoying habit of pausing before his “laugh lines” (I use the term loosely), as though he’s smirking at you, eyebrows wriggling, promising that THIS is going to be the wittiest thing you’ve ever heard. “Don’t call me a bore, don’t say I’m a mess / I’m not drinkin’ any more but I’m not drinkin’ … any … less”, and so on. That particular line graces the song “This Town Doesn’t Have Enough Bars for Both of Us”, from Gospel Music’s full-length debut How to Get to Heaven from Jacksonville, FL. It’s an album-length ode to hangdogs, the women who settle for them, and the extremely long titles that ensue. As you read this, Holmes is probably scoring a Michael Cera movie.
For Gospel Music, Holmes overdubs his own low-key playing and singing: his flat baritone makes him sound like he’s perpetually rolling out of bed. (He also plays bass for the once-controversial dance band Black Kids, still a going concern.) These 11 songs obsess over romance among young single heteronormative hipsters, and one lengthy title goes, “I Can’t Be a Man If I Don’t Have a Woman”. Holmes and his women jog (“Let’s Run”) and swim (“No Sharks”), dwell in apartments (“Apartment”), and especially drink – in the last song, “You Don’t Have to Be Alone (But You Can’t Be With Me)”, Holmes transforms himself into a metaphorical bar.
Several of these songs depict cutesy, slice-of-life scenarios. In “I Shared Too Much With Her”, Holmes drinks too much with a Puerto Rican cutie, then impounds her dog so she can enjoy his scraggly charms. (“Dios mios! That was one long weekend” — this is the only line on the album that consistently makes me smile, but then, I’m a xenophobe.) In “Death of the Newspaper”, Holmes tries to win his baby back by writing letters to the editor and placing ads. “If the newspaper dies, if the presses really stop / My love will find another and democracy will … flop”, he sings with anticlimactic pause. In “Apartment”, he and duet buddy Madeline Long play a couple getting back together for the 10th time, too embarrassed to be seen by their friends in public. And “Bedroom Farce” mixes up the Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You” with John Prine and Emmylou Harris’ “In Spite of Ourselves” – Holmes and Long find themselves stuck together, even as they pine for another couple through rhymed triplets like, “He pores over Poe, peruses Proust / While waiting for sauce to reduce / Buys only seasonal produce / I don’t know what you see in him.”
Sorry to quote all that archness, but it’s pretty much all these songs have going for them. The music’s about as consequential as pencil shavings. Holmes plays all his instruments – including the recently trendy banjo and ukelele – competently enough, but his songs barely exist. A couple of his melodies simply trace the roots of the chords, a pretty ham-fisted approach to songwriting. Along with his lack of breath support and his tendency to … pause … for unsubtle effect, Holmes comes across as a guy badly in need of a remedial singer/songwriter course. For fans, this doubtless constitutes much of his charm, especially since his lyrics ruefully depict a man desperate for a remedial class in love – form follows function and whatnot. Unfortunately, to paraphrase the fine singer/songwriter Amanda Shaw, rueful runs out.
Holmes has been compared to Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt, and there are certainly parallels – the baritone voice, the ukelele, the help of engineer Charles Newman. Fields singer Shirley Simms even guested on Gospel Music’s 2010 EP duettes. But listen to “When You’re Young and In Love”, a previously unreleased track from Merritt’s recent Obscurities collection, and the difference is telling. Merritt’s song isn’t much – silly rhymed triplets, a melody that mostly just traces the roots of the chords – but his voice is infinitely more distinctive, his delivery sharper, and his arrangement more sophisticated and developed than any of Holmes’s bouncy little efforts. When you can’t even match the weakest song on a Stephin Merritt rarities collection, you know you’ve got some work to do.