Let’s get this out of the way, right up front: I like this CD. A lot. Probably more than I like you, even, and I’m really happy that you’re bothering to read this. So that should tell you something. Exactly what it should tell you I’m not 100% sure, but then I’ve been drinking a little today. Which, really, is neither here nor there, because whether you’re completely dogfaced or stone cold sober, this is one hell of a disc. And that’s not something I say lightly.
Devin Davis is a clever artist. He sings, plays just about all of the instruments involved here (guitar, bass, drums, sax, organ, piano, percussion, theremin, trumpet, trombone and “giant gong”), calling in ringers for one trumpet piece, some pedal steel and a French horn solo. He name-checks Everett Ruess in “When I Turn Ninety-Nine”; I don’t know about you, but I had to look him up. And he’s prone to writing lines like this one from “Giant Spiders” – “I won’t sit still ‘til I’m upside down in the back of your eye” – a convoluted way of saying “until you see me again”. Maybe sometimes he’s a little too clever.
I was wracking what’s left of my brain trying to figure out what a good comparison for his sound would be, and then it struck me: Jules and the Polar Bears. The Jules in question is Jules Shear, but that’s still not gonna ring any bells for a lot of people, I know. I think I was one of the five people who actually bought both Got No Breeding and Fenetics when they came out. (And if there is any sort of benevolent deity out there, someone will re-release them both of those albums on a two-fer CD, real soon.) If you know those albums, though, you know the sort of thing I’m talking about – very literate pop, with some fairly intricate rhyme schemes and ambitious arrangements. If I had to classify this album (and I’d really rather not, but people seem to insist on it), I’d call it “smart-guy pop”.
Lonely People of the World, Unite! is ostensibly a concept album, dealing with various characters in various stages of loneliness. Being a recent transplant from somewhere in Florida to Chicago, Davis found it difficult to find other musicians to play with. Ergo, the concept. He pulls it off with varying amounts of success, and, y’know, kudos for attempting such a large endeavor in the first place.
What the album ends up becoming, in large part, is a quick trip through most of the better rock & roll styles available during that much-maligned decade we know as the seventies. For those of you who may not have been around to experience them firsthand, the seventies were the heyday for smart-guy pop. (Mention the phrase “70’s music” to the average passer-by, and most likely they’ll mention the ongoing national nightmare of disco. That’s a sad thing, really, because there was so much more than that going on. Really. You can trust me on this; I was there, in long-haired pimply virginal form.) In “Moon Over Shark City”, Davis sounds very much like Jules Shear fronting a “Suffragette City”-era Bowie tribute band, all compressed guitar and wailing sax. “Canons at the Courthouse” is vaguely Dylanesque, with vocals reminiscent of that dude from the Moody Blues, but in a good way.
You’ve got the glam-rock stomp of “Transcendental Sports Anthem”, complete with quotes from both the Monkees theme song and the Get Smart theme – the later on theramin, no less. Both “Sandie” and “Turtle & The Flightless Bird” fill the singer/songwriter slot nicely. (“Sandie” also features that French horn solo I mentioned above, a la Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush”) “Paratrooper With Amnesia” could easily be mistaken for an out-take from The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies. And so on. The only genres missing, really, are reggae and punk – and both are fairly well represented elsewhere, wouldn’t you say?
Having said all that, I’d be remiss if I left you with the impression that LPOTWU is just a slavish recreation of other people’s past glories. The vibe of previous times is there, but it’s done in a way that allows Davis’ personal take on life in the… what is it… 21st century to shine through. The tools of the past are used to examine the present, if you will.
Is it a perfect album? No, of course not. What the hell’s wrong with you? The rhythm track of “Giant Spiders”, the weakest song of the set, is way too busy, for one thing. And Davis gets a little too cute with the lyrics here and there. “Turtle & The Flightless Bird” gives us the line “After a while I arrived at a pile of feathers / crying in all capital letters / with a big white sling on her wing / and two geysers where her eyes were”. I mean, I dig that kind of thing, but even I can see where it might be a bit much.
This is nitpicking, though. Davis has turned in a really strong album. The playing is quality from top to bottom. I’ve often found that when you listen to one of these “one-man band” kinda deals (Rundren, Prince, Lindsay Buckingham, etc.*), there’s always one aspect of the musicianship that straggles a bit, simply because it’s incredibly difficult to be really good at everything. Usually it’s the drumming that comes up lacking, I guess because they figure nobody’s gonna pay that much attention to it, or folks will cut them some slack in that regard. Something along those lines, anyway. Well, I’m here to tell you that Devin Davis is, among other things, a damn good drummer. Given the many layers of instrumentation on display here, if you extrapolate a bit you’ve got an excellent debut.
I really can’t recommend Lonely People of the World, Unite! highly enough. Maybe it’s just my inner rock & roll geek coming out, but I’d have to say that this is one of my favorite releases so far this year. At any rate, I’m glad I found it. Do yourself a favor and pick this thing up somewhere.
* I’m not aware of any women attempting to do this, although I’m sure there must have been a few over the years. If I’m overlooking anyone, please let me know.