The Arts and Sciences: Hopeful Monsters

Zeth Lundy

Recorded mostly live in just two weeks, the new album from Atlanta-based songwriter Paul Melançon and his band flexes its meta-song muscles.

The Arts and Sciences

Hopeful Monsters

Label: Daemon
US Release Date: 2005-03-08
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.