The Moldy Peaches — the NYC duo of Adam Green and Kimya Dawson which went on hiatus earlier this decade for its members to pursue solo careers — took a casual, anything goes approach to songwriting. Their songs sound like they were made up on the spot, and most of the time it’s because they were. Adam Green’s three solo albums, in contrast, find him increasingly laboring over his songs. Or at least he labors over the musical side of his songs; they seem carefully planned and arranged. The lyrics still come across like an expressway into his brain… and it’s a very interesting brain, filled with absurd thoughts, not to mention fixations on prescription drugs, crack-smoking, and human anatomy.
Gemstones, Green’s third solo album, has a song which starts with the line, “Carolina, she’s from Texas / red bricks drop from her vagina,” and another song titled “Choke on a Cock”. Forget for a second that “Carolina” has a perfectly catchy melody and “Choke on a Cock” has pointed, if haphazard, digs at George W. Bush and celebrity worship, these lyrics and titles are an example of why Green will forever be branded “juvenile”, no matter how mature his music gets. Not that Gemstones‘ music is “sophisticated” like that on Green’s very Nick Drake-influenced 2003 album Friends of Mine. That album’s strings have been replaced with organ, its lightness turned into a grittier but at the same time more showy type of playfulness. He’s gone for a sound that’s somewhere between ’50s and ’60s rock and musical theatre, halfway between Buddy Holly and Broadway.
On Gemstones Green sings like he’s been making the nightclub rounds for decades. You can hear the wink in his voice — not an ‘I’m putting something over on you’ wink, but a ‘hey there baby, join me for a martini later’ Las Vegas wink and smile. What makes that funny is that he doesn’t have much of a singing voice, by most ‘professional’ standards, and that his voice is too deep and his singing style too talky for him to be any kind of romantic crooner. It’s like your next-door neighbor has decided that he’s Barry Manilow.
This amateur-showman quality is played up on Gemstones more than on any of Green’s previous recordings, partly because there’s a theatricality to the songs themselves. This starts right at the start, with the title track. It quickly shifts from a gentle folk number into a diamond-and-furs showstopper, first by varying the tempo, then by introducing a vaguely Hawaiian vacation feeling, then by shifting into a Technicolor, Vegas version of a typical Adam Green song, with him half-crooning, half-shouting, “She’s a very funny girl but I love that crazy bitch, all right!” The next song kicks off with dramatic drums straight from a musical, yet then they’re supporting a typical melodic folk song, albeit one with an extra dose of showmanship to it. That’s the way the whole album plays out, like Adam Green on Ice, showier on the surface yet still very much representative of his unique outlook.
The showbiz personality of Gemstones makes Green’s absurdist lyrics come off as even more overtly funny. Think of Wayne Newton, all decked out in his finest rhinestone-encrusted suit. Now imagine that he’s asking you to dance to the “Crackhouse Blues” or singing about going to a whorehouse. It’s funny stuff, though the humor is often more instinctual than logical. It’s funny even when it makes no sense. It’s the sort of humor you get or you don’t, but it can’t be explained really. In that way Gemstonesfeels like it was made for children, who often laugh and things they haven’t yet been taught by society not to laugh at. Gemstones sometimes seem like an album for children, yet one made by a foul-mouthed comedian.
At the same time, what makes Gemstones so riveting is that it isn’t completely a joke. Green has a real knack for melody, and many of these songs have an ‘oldies radio’ quality to them where you can imagine millions of people singing along to them in their car, not realizing what they’re singing about. And Green’s warped imagery, and the way he plays everything to the hilt, cover up the fact that there’s real emotions in his songs, real feelings of confusion and loneliness. Occasionally, in the middle of a song, those feelings will come across in a completely pure way, where you realize that he’s not winking or joking in any way. Then a few seconds later he’ll be singing about someone biting his cock.