With retro posturing running especially rampant in the rock underground, Long Island's criminally overlooked My Favorite provides a fresh antidote to such fashion-over-function flybys.
Instead of simply rehashing the mood and sounds of a bygone era, the band aims to continue in the thematic tradition of misanthropic Brit idols like Bowie, the Jam, Joy Division, the Smiths, Gary Numan, and New Order. Vintage synthesizers shimmer alongside bristly guitar jangle and the sensually bored vocals of Andrea Vaughn and frontman Michael Grace Jr., as tales of teenage, suburban isolation come surreally to life in Grace's evocative lyrics.
My Favorite has been kicking around in obscurity since the mid-'90s, when the band released a sporadic batch of singles to the open arms of indie-pop America and virtually nobody else. After several false starts and lineup changes, Grace and company emerged with the creatively evolved debut Love at Absolute Zero (Double Agent), compiling updated versions of some of those singles tracks ("Go Kid Go", "Working Class Jacket") with urgent new classics.
Absolute Zero won appropriately zealous acclaim from the press, little of which has seemed to translate into visibility and record sales. My Favorite thus remains a cult band, toiling solely for the satisfaction of its players and a lucky legion of adherents. Forgoing a typical sophomore showing, the quintet -- now Grace, Vaughn, guitarist and music co-writer Darren Amadio, bassist Gil Abad, and a drummer known only as "Todbot" -- announced a trilogy of four-song EPs.
The first, 2000's Joan of Arc Awaiting Trial, found a swell allegory for existential teen frustration in the historical figure. Lines like "Loneliness is pornography to them / But to us it is an art" and "I wear her dreams like a badge / I flash before the criminal world" have potential to come off as either pretentious or absurd, but with the band's sincere delivery and respectful homage, every word rings true.
A second installment, last year's A Cult of One, offered more heartfelt lyrical wisdom still, with the band's themes of choice hardly couched in a song title like "The Suburbs are Killing Us". Though many of these songs begin to sound too much alike musically, Grace always displays an engaging, subversive knack for unearthing something new amid what would otherwise be hackneyed images of pills, porn, leather jackets, lonely bedrooms, rainy nights, ghosts, sex, cigarettes, cassettes, Polaroids, and vampires.
The Kids Are All Wrong, the trilogy's closing chapter, is overshadowed by a gloomy theme of nuclear annihilation. Of course, My Favorite finds something freeing in even this subject, brandishing the mantra, "The bomb will bring us together", on back of the EP's sleeve. And just so you know Grace hasn't lost his wit, the first and third songs feature 'The Depressed Men's Choir featuring Mr. Love'.
"Burning Hearts", mournfully mid-tempo, opens with "We met first in cafes, and later in ruins / My best friend and I are saying goodbye to Hiroshima". The chorus is luxuriously delivered by Vaughn in a warm air of '80s-preserved melodies -- "I was an architect, she was an actress / I drew the Eiffel Tower on her dress, so we could see the world". A chilling line -- "All of this snow just made us glow in the dark" -- marks yet another feat of Grace's often dark humor, ending the song along with a mischievous series of la la la la's.
The next song, unabashedly titled "The Radiation", puts this image of a nuclear winter in line with sexual frustration and fallen saints, with a first chorus of "Let's go out in the radiation / It's Sebastian who broke his vows / He put you on the television / Turning tricks in a haunted house" and second of "Let's go out in the radiation / It's Theresa who broke your heart / She put you on the television / Suffering only for your art". It sounds cliché here, but as sung by Grace, it's indelibly haunting. "Let's do it, while the night still makes us sick", he sings with Vaughn at song's end.
On "Rescue us", there is a more sociological vibe, though still spiked with wit -- "Rescue us! / With our figureheads in cutout bins / Even punks need safety pins / Rescue us! / Because I don't want to be a hero anymore". Vaughn sings, "When I was girl / I murdered my parents / I thought I could sing my way to Paris", before "Rescue us! With our photocopied tragedies / Even goths need rosaries / Rescue us! Because I don't want to be your hero anymore". Again, there is a closing line full of sad-sack angst -- "It was never this cold in my dreams / And I think I might have fought for the wrong side".
In an unexpected break from the band's familiar musical template, the closing "The Lesser Saints" is a dreamy, dreary ballad flecked with piano and a first verse sung through vocoder (i.e. robot voice) by Grace. He rhymes more simply than usual -- "At a seaside home for convalescence / I took his name in vain during piano lessons / Three nuns like shadows came and dragged me up the stairs / Then beat me black and blue with my book of prayers". The most memorable line, though, turns out to be "I closed my eyes until they were gone / And then fell asleep with my headphones on".
If we're focusing on lyrics more than music here, well, that's because My Favorite is most appealing in that sense, which is meant more as praise for Grace's words than as insult towards the players' music. It's just that, as with the Silver Jews' David Berman or the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, sometimes lyrics are the prize element of success.
What the band seems to do best, besides refreshing stale notions (musically and lyrically both), is conjure songs as fiercely intellectual and tenderly heartbroken as they are backhandedly effervescent and irresistibly danceable. One would assume that this low-key trilogy will eventually be compiled on a single disc, and when it is, maybe some of the kids stuck on the retro hipness of Interpol or the Faint will find something geekishly loveable in My Favorite.