Label: Memphis Industries
There is something about those late nights; the time when the bars spill their boozy contents out into the street and the brokenhearted stagger home in a cloud of forgetfulness. Or the times when a party bleeds on until dawn and you and your friends chat in a cocoon of secret energy as people flutter to sleep around you. For some, this is the magic time, a bridge between the concrete world and a place where our secret desires burble to the surface.
On Victory Shorts, the latest album from London-based quintet Absentee, this translucent time is captured on a collection of tunes that alternates from bouncy country to rock-bottom laments. Though the songs are stunning, utterly original and instantly recognizable, the star of the show here is vocalist Dan Michaelson. He has one of the most distinct voices out there, a gravely, worn-in baritone not unlike The National’s Matt Berninger or Iggy Pop. This is the voice of someone who has had his share of long nights and bouts of beer-soaked parties. When paired with Melinda Bronstein’s honeyed harmonies, the union is as striking as it is fitting.
Though Absentee is billed as an alt-country act, the music on Victory Shorts ranges from strident rockers about stolen love to tragic ballads on losing one’s dignity. Absentee is short on a positive worldview, but damn if it doesn’t help them make some mighty good music. There are too many highlights on this album to pick just one standout track. “They Do It These Days” with its carnivalesque piano and swirling guitars is a jaunty tune about a forced marriage, while “Love Had Its Way” has Michaelson plumbing the pits of his soul in an exhausted fight with lost love. It is impossible not to mourn with him.
This doesn’t mean this is an entirely somber affair. Michaelson’s acerbic wit is fully on display, though his outlook is murky. On “The Nurses Don’t Notice a Thing,” a new father wants “to clap / But it seems inappropriate” when his wife gives birth and on “Bitchstealer” he claims, “When I’m drunk I’m fitter and your face seems much prettier / Than I remembered at the time.” Only an artist as deft as Jonathan Richman can weave humor so effortlessly into tense situations.
However, Michaelson and Bronstein are not the only impressive elements of Absentee. The instrumentation, which includes wailing guitars, saxophone, trumpet and vibraphone lend themselves well to the handclap choruses, both widening the scope of Michaelson’s despair and adding a hint of light to the entire affair. The best humor is always the darkest, though self-referential. Absentee scores in this department.
Anyone can relate to songs of unrequited love, songs that look to the past rather than focusing on a bright future. This is music that can console a jilted lover, helping them to smile again. It is music, some of the best of 2008, that can guide us towards the impending dawn, fill in the empty spaces in the night.
by David Harris