Anybody with a pitch-black sense of humor can release an album with cover art featuring a blood-stained giant panda gnawing on a severed leg while a horrified young girl looks on. It takes a genuine talent, however, to write and record songs as blackly comic as the cover described above. Jarrod Gorbel, frontman for the Honorary Title, is that talent. Don't let his overearnest emo-folkie career path -- getting handpicked by Chris Carrabba to open for Dashboard Confessional, sharing a label with the All-American Rejects -- fool you; Gorbel is a clever songwriter with a true pop craftsman's heart. And Gorbel, with the help of multi-instrumentalist and other full-time band member Aaron Kamstra, turns in a fine debut album, Anything Else But the Truth.
Permit one clarification of the term "pop craftsman". Gorbel's not a hook-happy madman (in a good way) à la Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger or Brendan Benson. Rather, he's more of a craftsman of pop, constructing airtight songs in the singer/songwriter vein of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst or Jeff Buckley. Such comparisons place Gorbel in rarefied air, but they are not undeserved. On "Everything I Once Had", Gorbel, backed by his acoustic guitar, plumbs the depths of the soul, spewing lines like "Anyone is suitable for you, I guess, tonight / You weren't fazed / It's over with" in a way that suggests the tune was originally a Bright Eyes b-side. And the bombastic waltz "Points Underneath" calls to mind Jeff Buckley at his most despairing and passionate.
By merely aping Oberst and Buckley, Gorbel will earn himself a few fans, but his greatest ability is writing those aforementioned blackly comic songs. "Cut Short" is the best of a sharp bunch, as Gorbel's narrator is a smooth-talking lothario who lives with his folks and spouts lines like "We could be the peppers and onions / In a sleeping bag fajita" on his female prey, then finds himself, with one of his conquests sitting shotgun, busted by the cops in a strip mall parking lot. Oh, and he finishes the tune by imagining himself crashing into an HOV lane driver who is "faking it" by traveling with three inflatable passengers. That's a lot to happen in four minutes, but Gorbel doesn't waste a syllable and his narrator is a vividly drawn, complete character.
Equally (in its own way) funny is "Revealing Too Much", where Gorbel's narrator outlines both a sexual encounter and (I believe) a girlfriend's depression ("And I will not allow you to destroy yourself"), then catches himself in confessional mode and wonders "I hope that I'm not revealing too much". Granted, these songs are not laugh-out-loud funny (thought the absurd "Cut Short" comes close) but they are more thought-out than the average singer/songwriter's diary page/song lyric.
And the songs themselves exhibit arrangements that belie a pop sensibility greater than just an acoustic guitar. A piano fleshes out the gentle opener "Frame by Frame" (a tune which, it must be mentioned, spells out Gorbel's ethos: "I share with complete strangers my most personal of pleasures"). Mike Daly's pedal steel colors both "Cut Short" and "Revealing Too Much". "Disengage" is, of all things, a Dylanesque country shuffle.
Anything Else But the Truth's batch of songs aren't the catchiest songs ever, but they are more than just the metaphorical panda fur on which Gorbel can drip his lyrics. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm glad that Dashboard Confessional discovered a band.