Recorded mostly live in just two weeks, the new album from Atlanta-based songwriter Paul Melançon and his band flexes its meta-song muscles.
Here's the deal, and I'm gonna be honest with you here: I have absolutely no idea where to start. Words uncharacteristically fail me now, and I hate them for it. If only they would swallow me up, shine some sort of beacon on my otherwise cloudy opinion of the Arts and Sciences' Hopeful Monsters, then I could talk my way through this review and make sense in the process. The only reaction I can seem to muster is one of apathy, leaving me with nothing but half-baked false starts and a still-far-from-lucid comprehension of what needs to be said.
First I thought I would write about Paul Melançon's songs, and how they reference themselves in this disarmingly self-conscious manner. Alternating between confessionals and portraits, Melançon is readily aware of his potential impact on either narrator or subject. "Did you know I'm terrified to write this all down / Like somehow I'll just keep it around," he admits in "The Monster at the End of This Book"; in "Boom Echo", he circularly states, "I am the man in this song now who knows / That I am the man in this song with no hope of making sense of the scenery"; and the complete lyrics to "You Are Her(e)" fully describe the process of the song's construction and subsequent absorption: "This song is a new one / Sit down, settle in / There's not much chance that you've heard it before". Melançon brands his lyrical musings on love with these devices, perhaps to remind us (and himself) of the inescapable self-analysis imbedded in songcraft. I would have written extensively on that subject, but figured it to be too quasi-intellectual; instead I'll simply tell you that Melançon is a perceptive songwriter.
Melançon's stellar imagery was also considered as a topic. Throughout Hopeful Monsters' downtrodden tales of love soured, misused, and misplaced, Melançon impresses with his striking manipulation of language. Some examples I was to explore: "What she kept was a fire escape of love / A safety net you can only reach from above" ("What She Kept"); "I would never have chosen a fire this sad and golden / But now I'm curled around a heat I've learned to hate" ("Gravel Queen"); "Someone's draped the hive in black / And no one's sleeping well tonight / Now that bad news has come" ("Tell It to the Bees"). I would have gladly pursued this avenue, but realized soon into my dissection that I really wasn't talking about the music, just the words. Since this is a music review, that was a problem.
I then contemplated an assessment of the band itself, based in Atlanta, Georgia and comprised of musicians from Melançon's touring ensemble: namely, guitarist Lee Cuthbert, bassist Erin Dangar, and drummer Chris Pollette. Although Hopeful Monsters is a group record in name, it's a songwriter's record in execution. The Arts and Sciences serve the songs so smartly and unselfishly that they are, at times, invisible -- that's not a belittlement, but rather an observation that periodically they slip from peripheral vision. At their best, they exude indie Athens charisma or the literate dexterity of the Decemberists; at their more ordinary moments, their competence is more akin to Barenaked Ladies. I didn't want to devolve into some tired, lazy quasi-crit of comparisons, but I did want to point out that the band rocks when called upon ("O Columbia", "Gravel Queen") and softly simmers on cue ("What She Kept"). Sadly, bands have been doing that for ages, some with more grace and oomph than others, so I scratched that angle.
All the time, I kept coming back to the song "Fall Down", whose jagged hook of a chorus doesn't explode insomuch as it raises the stakes. "A pocket full of posies for you," Melançon offers coyly, adding: "A scent to hide the poison I bring for you". I thought then of the Pernice Brothers' acerbic lullabies and Elliott Smith hiding his face behind a bouquet on the back of his self-titled record; I thought of pretty deceptions and sweet-natured subversions. Convinced that I was moving in meaningless circles, I then tried to think of nothing at all.