Musical artists who travel along more eclectic, genre-defying lanes are the ones who are often the hardest to describe succinctly. Writers often need a thesaurus and a rock encyclopedia to get the wording just right. For the multitalented Matt DeMello, you could say that his new album, Confetti in a Coalmine, sounds like Jonathan Coulton binging Van Dyke Parks after taking those pills from Limitless. Perhaps “They Might Be Giants teaming up with Frank Zappa to write a musical” is a more apt comparison – as long as you also include references to Ben Folds, Todd Rundgren, Chris Opperman, and maybe a dash of Phish at their most absurd.
You get the idea. DeMello is an odd, brilliant musician whose new album can be a gleefully exhausting experience – in the best possible way. He describes himself as a “multi-instrumentalist bricolage audio producer, sound artist, composer, and songwriter”, and Confetti in a Coalmine certainly doesn’t contradict that. With the exception of several highly capable musicians contributing instrumentation here and there, the new album is all DeMello, stuffed to the rafters with musical nods to prog, glam, power-pop, and a healthy dose of musical theater.
Much like Zappa – an artist who has influenced DeMello – there is plenty of social satire and inspiration from current events. The single “(A-Typical) Candidate (For Rampage Violence)” mourns the state of American democracy and pairs the lyrics with a piano-centric Tin Pan Alley vibe. “There are those here among us,” he sings, “Who knows they’re the chorus / For whom martyrs are slain / Who still see others in chains / Who are trying in vain / To pay back the debts that we can’t wish away.” The song’s rousing coda is chilling: “Caffeine and THC / Alcohol, melatonin in a symphony / Sleep will be the death of me / If I get there first, say a prayer for me.”
Structured as an odd, fractured song cycle, Confetti in a Coalmine unspools in a series of episodes that straddle various musical genres. “So, Uh…Thanks for Stopping By?” opens the album with DeMello in fine voice, accompanied by a string section (credited to the Rootstock Republic String Quartet) and Jennifer Nordmark’s one-person angelic choir. “Every year at half past midnight on January 27th,” the song begins, “Wolfgang rolls over in his grave as I get one step closer to heaven.” But that’s followed by the blistering shuffle of “(Needalittlebitomah) Sunshine”, putting DeMello somewhere in the vicinity of both overbearing classic rock boogie and upbeat show tunes.
One thing that makes Confetti in a Coalmine a unique treat is that while DeMello is most certainly a student of genres and stylists that came before him, there’s plenty of aggressive modernism at work as well. “Like a Body in a Hearse (Butcha Gotta Catch Me First)” is full of synthesized, drum machine-fueled madness, a bit of no-wave post-punk that leaves most of the musical theater inclinations behind. Likewise, “Another Word for Love” is a highly entertaining, lo-fi nod to synthpop, with DeMello singing his odd style of a love song (“I was thinking of another word for love / That’s not the word I was sure I was thinking of / But I thank you for the contribution to the size of my vocabulary”) as synthesizers and plastic beats swirl around him. Amanda “Rain” O’Keefe’s over-the-top vocal contribution is a bonus and gives the song an additional twisted layer.
Elsewhere, “A Tension’s Deficit / All-State Firing Squad” brings things back to more “political statement” territory, as DeMello’s lone electric guitar recalls early Billy Bragg before the typically odd arrangements and orchestrations change the overall tenor. “Home of the free to be as big as any asshole that the comments thread lets you be,” sings DeMello, “About how behind every participation trophy case is an AR-15 / Aiming at a bottle of prescription amphetamines trying so hard not to make a scene.” Big Star-leaning power pop makes a fun appearance on “Sigh Welllllp… Don’tmindifido!” – complete with an engaging horn section and plenty of guilty-pleasure guitar riffs (not to mention some fun, wanky guitar soloing). While a lot of the album was recorded during pandemic-influenced home recording sessions, some of the sessions date back to 2016, which may be one of the reasons Confetti in a Coalmine has such a wide-ranging and genre-hopping feel.
Confetti in a Coalmine sounds like so many things – but taken as one piece of work, it sounds like absolutely nothing else. It’s a ten-track triple espresso wake-up call in a world gone mad. While many artists are cranking out the same old things in the same old categories, Matt DeMello is inventing new genre combinations and inviting us all into his laboratory.