Well, here’s an about-face. The last time we heard from John Dufilho, frontman for, and driving force behind, the Dallas, Texas-based Deathray Davies, he was releasing 2003’s Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory, an album — as its title suggests — full of shiny, if dark, indie pop. It was the musical equivalent of obsidian. Also, on Midnight… Dufilho played most of the instruments (with a little help from Jason Garner) as well as handled the vocal duties; it was an impeccably-crafted, introverted (if not introspective) record. Two years later, and Dufilho has shifted gears, releasing The Kick and the Snare with 11 warm, poppy tunes recorded with the full DRD touring band (a first for Dufilho).
The Kick and the Snare is a much less portentous record than its predecessor — no multi-part song suites this go-round, or intimations of a “Bedroom Orchestra” — but it more than makes up for it with its affable charm. Opener “The Fall Fashions” lets the band’s new modus operandi be known immediately: it’s bright and brassy with warm horns and a friendly keyboard line. With the full band of six guys — Dufilho on vox, guitar and organ, with bassist Garner, guitarist Mike Middleton, drummer Robert Anderson, keyboardist Chad Ferman and “badass” (read: additional percussionist) Kevin Ingle — the songs have little choice but to sound expansive.
Of course, all of this was planned. Sez Garner in the press kit: “[After the darker Midnight] we made more of an effort towards simplistic melody, with counter-melody on top of it, and simple riffs.” To wit, there’s the Fountains of Wayne-ish “Stumble”, and the strong riffage of “A Calendar Crime”. These guys excel at ornate chamber pop as well as straightahead indie power pop, and they deserve more credit for straddling those two worlds.
The band also dips into a little punk and New Wave, with the sinister “Chainsaw” (a spiritual cousin to Midnight…‘s “How to Win at Roulette”, with its economy of words) and the stream-of-consciousness rant “Plan to Stay Awake” (dig Ferman’s New Wavy keys) They also continue the ongoing “They Stuck Me in a Box in the Ground” song cycle — a part has appeared on three of the band’s four previous releases. They’re up to Part 7 now (though, flipping through the band’s discography, Parts 3 and 6 seem to have been skipped), and Dufilho’s getting all meta on the concept: “So far they’ve stuck me in the ground six times,” he notes, while Andrews brews up a desperate racket on his kit. The song doesn’t make that much sense — the narrator has either been drowned or jumped out of an airplane — but it sounds good, especially the brief guitar solo, and it’s a neat bit of conceptual continuity linking the DRD albums.
And for all the sonic brightening, Dufilho’s clever approach to songwriting hasn’t changed. Sometimes he’s abstract: “Release the Squid (Box 6)” (as if the title wasn’t enough of a tip-off for Dufilho’s abstract leanings) opens with “A random sign: ‘Attention! Stare into the sea, cuz what’s in there might just drag you down below”; other times, conversational: “You were just feeding birds on top of my car,” closes “Stumble”; sometimes, both: “Rate a writer / Right or wrong / It’s written down and should belong” goes a line from “Plan to Stay Awake”. The man’s an underrated lyricist with a writerly ear.
The upbeat, lightweight (in a good way) The Kick and the Snare is a great companion piece to its darker predecessor, illustrating both artistic forces pulling on Dufilho and co. Consider the Black Nail Polish Factory Windows thrown open on a sunny summer day.