Paleo: Misery, Missouri

The goal of a music critic is to prevent a fair and balanced review of each album. But for some critics, the amount of sheer, utter crap that passes through their Discmans is at times depressingly large. A few decide to toss in the towel and take up another vocation while others opt to continue headlong into the pile for those one or two discs each week that make it worth wading through the sonic poppycock. And then there are a few others like Dave Strackany. Strackany himself was a critic but decided to take matters into his own hands and make his own music. That is, of course, when not running his art gallery in Iowa City. The end result of this album might not whet all the musical palettes, but there is a lovely, barren singer-songwriter feeling that makes this record terribly enjoyable.

Leading things off is “Houdini”, with Strackany sounding similar to another relatively unknown singer-songwriter Tom Brousseau, singing the song with not the greatest style but with a dreamy, alt. country backdrop behind him. There’s a warble in his timbre that draws you in akin to a shyer than usual Ron Sexsmith. And the arrangement itself is different thanks to a subtle use of what sounds like a toy piano. It’s a great start and lends itself nicely to “Ophelia (Asleep in the Flower Pot)”, a start-and-stop kind of pop folk track that brings to mind Ryan Adams or Jack White singing after listening to a Tom Waits box set. It could be grating on the nerves to some listeners, but there’s still a strolling tempo that makes the whole thing come together. Paleo then reverts to a rumbling, tumbling country blueprint for the infectious jug band-like “Beautiful Lady, Beautiful Girl” that could be mistaken for Devendra Banhart if he was covering Gram Parsons.

At times, though, Strackany can miss the mark, albeit marginally, as he does with “What Is Love?” Taking a distant drum that uses brushes, the dusty, close and barren number has a slight change-of-pace but stays true to something Neil Young would have done with Harvest Moon as an electric guitar chimes in about halfway through, building the bridge and filling the sound out. The organ also doesn’t hurt. The album strays into a poppy groove with the infectious, psychedelic-tinged, slow-building “When Pirates Come to Port”, a song that you could instantly clap your hands or stomp your feet to although it’s not really a balls-out rocker. Not by any stretch of the imagination. These songs take on lives of their own and never truly stick to any set radio-friendly or alt. rock style for that matter. Whether it’s the use of instruments or the fact Strackany might have a short attention span, the songs are quite winding, as demonstrated on the jerky, gear-shifting “You and a Dog”.

The first true rocker has to be “A OK”, with its frantic guitar strumming, harder, edgier backbeat and swirling, heady tone. It never loses steam despite taking a breather about two and a half minutes in. Unfortunately, Paleo hits a wall with a tired and rather uninspired “A Dead Boy Breathing in the Background of a B-Movie”. And here it sounds like Paleo has decided to spend this dead boy’s remaining minutes boring him literally to death. Thankfully Paleo redeems himself with “Learning to Say ‘I Love You’ in Foreign Languages” that again resorts to a quirky but catchy brand of pop. You expect him at any moment to break out into Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” but, alas, he never does. The surprise of the record could be how well “Occam’s Razor” comes off, particularly with its jazzy acoustic, swinging kind of groove. From there it morphs into a faster They Might Be Giants or Violent Femmes-like romp.

Paleo hits the mark again with a strong “Two By Half” that has Strackany branching out vocally for a fuller, more develop style, although it might not be something one would write home about. Nonetheless, Strackany should give the music critic job a rest for a little bit and treat more of us hacks to more of this quirky but quite credible minstrel-like folk pop.

RATING 7 / 10