It's best to think of John Dufilho's first solo record as a safety release valve for his main band, the Deathray Davies
It took five albums, but John Dufilho and his band, the Deathray Davies, finally broke, if not into the mainstream, then at least onto the indie pop scene in 2005 with the bright, well-crafted The Kick and the Snare. But -- as is always mentioned when a guy in a band releases a solo album -- Dufilho's a busy man, and not one to rest on the laurels of semi-fame. He pitched in on buddy Salim Nourallah's Beautiful Noise this past summer, and he now finishes a productive 2005 with a charming, lo-fi, self-titled solo record.
Like his fellow Texans Nourallah and Rhett Miller, who've released solo albums that differ from the output of their "day job" bands (Happiness Factor and Old 97s, respectively), John Dufilho's record isn't merely stripped-down Deathray tunes with Dufilho playing every instrument (and recording and producing, for what it's worth) on all the songs. That said, though Dufilho clearly wants the record to stand apart from his DRD work -- it is a self-titled record, after all -- when taken in the greater context of his full discography, John Dufilho sounds like a Deathray Davies safety release valve, an outlet for Dufilho to indulge in some experimentation without losing any of the steam the Davies gathered this year.
That's certainly not a bad thing. But for every charming tune like the fuzzed-out/blissed-out "Paper Hats and Campfire Hands" or the bright "Now I'm a Stick Figure", there's a headscratcher like "The Bridge of Stolen Bicycles", a synth-heavy instrumental that sounds like nothing so much as the theme song to a cheesy sci-fi movie, circa 1984 (and is plopped right in the middle of the album) or the funky throwaway "Nate and Gray's Theme", a surf-bass number about two prepubescent boys who learn the secret of happiness is to not bathe. These tunes work as a window into Dufilho's creative process, but they'd sink a DRD release. It's a shame that's the case, because when he's at the top of his game, Dufilho's one of the finest pop craftsmen on the indie scene today, worthy of comparison to, say, Carl Newman or Brendan Benson.
All the tunes on the record, with the possible exception of "Stolen Bicycles", are unmistakably Dufilho's -- his clever, literary phrasing (he compares the internal discombobulation one feels when in the throes of new love to feeling "like that old building downtown they blew up from the inside") and, despite the lo-fi aesthetic, his warm, fuzzy guitar still pops up throughout -- but one gets the sense Dufilho was more interested in the process of creating an album that sounded like a 4-track bedroom recording (it is, however, a studio creation) than worrying about the songs themselves. With a little more spit and polish, Dufilho could have had a great companion record to The Kick and the Snare, instead of the merely-okay sketchbook that John Dufilho turned out to be. Still, there are worse fates in life.