As a fan of Cotton Mather, rumors of the band's demise were upsetting -- I thought it would be a while before I'd hear that winning Robert Harrison voice singing anything new. But then I discovered the Louisville-based quintet Digby and their impressive Falling Up, and while the sensibility differs some, I realized I'd found the rightful heir to that musical legacy.
For one, lead singer Paul Moeller is a virtual vocal doppelganger for Harrison. He's joined by a quartet of others -- Mark Book on drums, Rich Oeffinger on lead guitar, Ben Schneider on bass, and John Shiner on keyboards. These five produce smart pop music that commands your attention and holds it effortlessly from track to track. There's a slight southern influence beneath the alternative rock pinnings, and an overall sense of actual fun. If you go to their website and read the individual bios (written by other band members), you'll get a sense of the wise-cracking intelligence at play here. The fact that Digby manage to turn it into good music is only a plus.
On this, their official national debut (containing five new songs and a number of tunes from their earlier release entitled Go Digby), the band serves up a dozen winning tracks courtesy of Todd Smith (Smash Mouth, Days of the New), who keeps the production clean and captures that sense of fun well. Here are five guys who enjoy what they do and know they do it well -- reviving that Brit-pop guitar and keyboard-driven sound of long ago with well-written songs.
The CD leads with the uber-catchy "Minerva", a sweetheart's censure post-relationship, told by one who once "was the bread" and now is "the crumbs". There's plenty of examination at work, wondering if it was good: "Every time you cry I stick around for more / It's not a game, but you're still keeping score / I try to walk away, but you just sold my shoes / For a burnt out commitment and an empty excuse / And you've got the nerve Minerva / To lick up the leftovers". It's a winning hook-laden song, and one that sticks with you long after the chiming guitars and harmonies end.
Self-confession continues with "If You Only Knew", an upbeat jaunt about living a lie and running the risk of actually having it turn into something true. The clever confession here is that he's only been faking it the whole way through: "We had a conversation / I pretended you weren't there / You expressed your intent / And I pretended not to care / Now we're slowing to a grinding halt / I can't help but notice everything's my fault".
The first single off the record is the superb "Too Late". Here, Digby employs musical hooks a-plenty: a start-stop effect, great guitars, Cars-like keyboards, and a solid bottom of drums and bass. This is a justification for arrested adolescence, stating that further analysis is pointless, that it's too late to change being "forever a child": "If I could turn it off / I wouldn't turn you on / You wouldn't wait around / Hanging on so long".
Perhaps my favorite song here is "100% Free". For one, Paul Moeller's vocals are emotive and straightforward, drawing you into his intimate storytelling, and what fine lyrics, a fun and brutal assessment of relationships simplified into meat market shopping -- he sees her sashay down the aisle and puts her right in his shopping cart. But it's mostly just wishful thinking, as this lyric reveals: "My friends may be right / There might be something 'bout the way you look at me like I'm bound to fail / And your friends may be right / There might be something 'bout the way that I look at you like you're on sale / Though we've only test driven each other once or twice / I'm fairly certain that we both thought it was nice".
Digby shifts to ballad mode with the quiet title track "Falling Up to the Stars". Again, I'm reminded of Cotton Mather at its best, with sweet harmonies on the chorus and more bittersweet poetic lyrics, looking for answers in the darkness of the sky: "Wanted to be caught in a light from afar / Breaking the weight / Falling up to the stars".
Rich Oeffinger lends some breezy lead to "Caged", a song about a man caged in a relationship that he assures us is "really over". How can you not like a song that uses the word "hornswaggle"?
John Shiner's piano is the glue beneath the bluesy ballad "Keep Your Distance". This is another failed relationship song -- apparently we learn that "It's never the right time to love too much". Moeller really sells the agonized vocals big-time.
"M.I.A." is an easy anthem to sing along with (even with its 1980s new age accents), a sort of cautionary tale of an unpredictable woman to be avoided. "It's Not Over" mixes several styles of rock into one, a tale of panic and worst-case scenarios. "So Low" is another pretty atmospheric ballad, featuring a number of sweet musical accents (including violin) surrounding Moeller's sort of Dylan-esque speak and sing approach. As you listen, you can almost see the smoke in the bar around you.
"Some Can Hear" is a rambling ballad, softened by a string arrangement by Scott Staidle. "'Til the Morning" is a beautiful closer, a tale of waiting, harmonized yeah yeahs, and the ultimate realization that "You were the lie that made me realize truth is so hard". In an unusual move, Digby also includes a track from their friends' band the Muckrakers (pretty decent at that too).
Formed in 2000 out of the remains of another band (100 Acre Woods), Digby changed their sound to deliver rock/power pop and haven't turned back once. They're able to incorporate a number of rock influences while managing to keep their own polished sound. I do wish the band would expand a bit more beyond the realm of failed relationships in their future lyrics, though (and it would have been nice to have lyrics included in the CD booklet, for the record).
Fans of Cotton Mather really should check Digby out immediately, but anyone with a penchant for infectious melodic rock and wry, intelligent lyrics should enjoy this. Falling Up is a most auspicious debut, mature and chock full of fun listening just in time for the hot summer.