Once upon a time there was an obscure band called Smalltown Criers. Among its members were one Chris Collingwood and one Scott Klass. Collingwood has since gone on to achieve a certain level of commercial notoriety and success along with band-mate Adam Schlessinger in Fountains of Wayne. But don't be quick to discount Klass. His talents are first-rate and, in a just world, popular success would also be forthcoming to him and his current "band", the Davenports.
On Hi-Tech Lowlife, the sophomore release from Klass and the Davenports, there are 12 wonderful songs that trade on infectious melodies and smart lyrics, the kind that stick in your head long after the music stops on your player. Klass has a gift for nuance and hooks, and along with Charles Newman (Flare, the Magnetic Fields), he has produced a tight collection of pretty pop for the ages. Each track is painstakingly constructed for your maximum listening pleasure -- from harmonies to intriguing instrumental choices -- this is top-notch college art rock, easy on the ears and engaging both heart and mind.
Scott Klass is the driving, multi-tasking creative force behind the Davenports. On this collection, he merely co-produces, writes the songs, and provides vocals, guitars, pianos, farfisa and other keys, glockenspiel, percussion, handclaps, kneeslaps, and drums. He's joined by the likes of Rob Draghi on drums, Thomas Ward on bass, and Sam McIlvain on lead guitar, along with a host of others on horns, strings, and backing vox.
The CD leads with the title track, a short but bouncy little march of a number complete with farfisa organ and strings all about a guy's newfound discovery of his mastery over porn DVDs -- a solution for loneliness and then some: "Call me Commander Hi-Tech Lowlife / Embarrassed eyes come and see / It's leaps and bounds for the nights at home without you / A brand new day for me."
"Melissa Now" is the comfy tale of hanging with Lee (playing pool, going to the diner), watching the tube to see that former snotty-nosed camper acquaintance Melissa, who now has cameos on TV. The kicker: Lee, believe it or not, knows Melissa now. A great little slice of life tale, perfectly told (with nice slide by Greg Beshers and a great piano coda).
"Eric Grey" is a pleasantly sweet song of solace to one who has put up with a solid week's worth of one hapless Eric Grey: "Are you OK after a week of Eric Grey / His fits and spots left you in knots / Crying 'Where did I go wrong?'" Again, great arrangements, perfectly placed strings, and superb harmonies from guests Cheri Leone (Trouble Dolls) and Mark Bacino.
Klass has songs with more hooks than a hanger factory. "You'll Never Know" is yet another of these -- with lyrics obtuse enough to be fun to figure. I think it's about the kinds of small hurtful things we say to get a little extra attention (or not): "Without a doubt your grape and gravy / Spilling out with every cut and chew today / Don't walk away -- you heard me say / You'll never know me like they do."
The fun keeps coming, this time with a bit of Cars influence thrown into the chorus mix. "Avery Girls" (with its charming fuzz bass lead and odd verse percussion) is about the lovely summer girls that seem to come around Mr. Avery: "In Avery-town, never too brown or crazy / Never away when pints and pools abound." Dan Miller (of They Might Be Giants) guests on lead guitar.
One of my favorites here (and it's hard to choose) is the beguilingly simple "A Deadhead's Lament". Sure, we all wondered what would become of them following Jerry's demise -- and here Klass addresses the issue in song, asking the musical questions with a spot of humor and string accompaniment, contemplating a reason to be tomorrow: "Now that he don't play don't know what we'll do tomorrow / This van it reeks of several weeks / Of following you around / I think it may be less OK now that you're underground.".
Hi-Tech Lowlife allows the Davenports to show more musical range than on their previous release. For example, there's a horn-driven waltz. "Daisy to Everyone", with a sort of German oompah band accompaniment (Phil Granger on trumpet, Robert Susman on trombones), relates the tale of local gossip and brown-noser Daisy, eager to stay on everyone's good side in spite of causing damage wherever she goes.
The uber-infectious "Everyone's Talking About Baseball" waxes nostalgic about pleasant boyhood memories and the oddball Andy who was a bit of an outsider throughout. Again, the arrangements and production shine, filling spaces with catchy and oft-unlikely instrumental sounds (and nice lead guitar from Sam McIlvain).
Klass ventures a bit into Burt Bacharach territory with "Happy Hour", a drunken apology and plea for yet another second chance from one feeling sorry for himself: "Happy hour, the lager-laughter / You knew before was not what I'm after at all, baby / Say you'll hold my shaky hand tonight."
A redheaded heartthrob actress is the subject of "Annette O'Toole", as Klass's narrator confesses his adoration for the co-star of One on One (with Robby Benson, if memory serves). The real life Ms. O'Toole remains beautiful, now married to actor Michael McKean -- and co-penned the grammy nominated song "The Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" (from A Mighty Wind) with her husband.
Love is the main subject in "You're the Only Girl for Me", but life in the West Village is the subtext. When Klass used to live off Perry Street, the transvestite hookers had a bad habit of leaving their soiled condoms on the street. So those are the "bags" referred to here: "Perry boys leave their bags to the breeze / Blow up to my window sill full of soil."
The album closes with a bonus track that's not quite holiday-ready, "Whore for the Holidays". This sweet, harmony-laced ditty relates the tale of one who succumbs yearly to the carnal pleasures that follow too many drinks at the office party: "Decorum is for fools / Tied to their cubicles / You know the normal rules no longer apply once Bing Crosby plays."
Hi-Tech Lowlife delivers a dozen great songs and leaves you wanting more. This is subtle power pop at its most pleasant, with lyrics that tell stories askew and arcane. Klass writes melodic confections that seep into your psyche and stay awhile, and does so with wit and intelligence.
I can't see anyone who enjoys Fountains of Wayne not similarly loving the music of the Davenports. Now that one member of the former Smalltown Criers has gone on to achieve a modicum of commercial success, let's hope that Klass and the Davenports are next in line.