You know it’s getting bad when the cover of the Sunday paper is just straight up: “We all have clinical anxiety now.”
Everybody’s got a coping mechanism, but the Netflix shows are getting used up, the bread has been baked, the sweaters knit.
At this point, election news blaring, it’s everything most people can do not to stare at their phone for hours at a time.
It’s why the opening track of Dominic Lavoie’s new “Wave With a Broken Arm” is immediately arresting, with a xylophone like a classic Apple ringtone that morphs into a repeating melody and then gets buried by synths, a loungey drum kit, and chiming guitars. “On My Phone (All Day)” crystallizes the odd contrast of lethargy and mania that can set in if you’re rarely leaving your house, and time seems to pass at odd intervals, and you’re never quite comfortable.
“I’ll be on my phone all day,” Lavoie sometimes lilts, sometimes jabs, “just waiting for something to pull me away.”
It’s a psychedelic world, with layers of percussion like Vampire Weekend on quaaludes, and swirling keyboards where we “suffer pretty sins” and “every repeat we heard was just merely mirage.”
Except Lavoie’s been sitting on this for a year and made the whole thing with his current band – Mike Chasse (drums) and keys and various stringed instruments from Justin Wiley, John Nels, Pete Genova, and Scott Mohler – before coronavirus was a glimmer in a conspiracy theorist’s chatroom. It can be hard to believe, listening through, speaking as it does to our national unrest, and providing just the right antidote to the locked-in jitters.
Lavoie has evolved for sure, with tighter songs and ever-better understanding of how to use his voice, but it seems like maybe he was ahead of his time, too.
While pop-music culture has been moving toward more regimented, programmed, algorithmic hits, Portland psych-rockers like Lavoie, Jeff Beam, and Greasy Grass have been laying on the organs and keyboards, stacking sounds on top of one another, and creating mind candy a little more adventurous than the four-on-the-floor hits.
And now that there can be so much to distract us, a little mind candy that can dominate your consciousness all by itself is pretty welcome.
“Broken Arm” certainly has plenty to dig into. An album in the classic sense – 10 cohesive songs, 38 minutes, and perfect for vinyl – the orchestrations are complex and creative and the lyrics meander and don’t always offer up their secrets on first listen. Best of all, there is a clear, uplifting throughline that keeps it from devolving into melancholia. It’s a record that has a calmness to it, even when it dips into prog-rock or grunge.
At times, you get Peter Gabriel-era Genesis without the drama, Rush without the heavy. “Time Is a Joker” evokes echoes of George Harrison’s work, which may not be surprising, since Lavoie covered him on 2012’s “ShaShaSha” LP.
With the big single, “Skeletons at the Feast,” there’s a bit of the digital polish that made Rustic Overtones’ “Gas on Skin” ripple with energy and might make you remember that time Lavoie pulled that song’s bassline into “Y’All Make Me Paranoid” on 2013’s “Vandyke Brown” EP. It’s the kind of song where guitar riffs shoot by in transitions that other bands would ride for measures because they were so psyched they thought of it, like Wilco’s “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel” days.
Like the “la la la” finish here, nothing on the album ever seems forced or rushed. Everything is on its own time.
And the album’s heart is “Jetset Johnny,” which can only be a remembrance for Johnny Fountain, who died of cancer in 2015 and whose posthumous solo album Lavoie helped put together last year. If Lavoie can create something this optimistic out of Fountain’s death, you can ride out the pandemic. Heck, the mid-song rave-up is Paramore-worthy and the second verse shows a stoicism we could all stand to figure out: “I don’t feel like you are gone/ Just a jetset to someplace the likes I’ve never known.”
There’s a lot of pain here, but Lavoie acknowledges it and puts it in its place, never denying its existence. The Screaming Trees guitar chimes and muted vocals suggest angst, but the song is undeniably danceable, with “sights on something further down the road a little ways.”
No one’s experience of the current moment is the same. Surely, for some, things have never been better. Others don’t have the luxury of staring at a phone all day. They don’t even have a phone. But it’s hard to believe anyone is oblivious to the buzz of tension that seems to be the price for engaging in contemporary pandemic society.
Let “Wave With a Broken Arm,” then, be the antidote.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 songs
The election seems to have brought out the wild and crazy.
• BeeTree, “Time” — Especially in combination with the video, this is one of the most truly out there releases Maine has produced. Certainly, it’s the trippiest thing ever released by a Maine senate candidate: Democrat Bre Kidman mixes in old-time, ’60s pop singing with Casio beats and what appears to be Alex Jones riffing on a “gay bomb.” Wild, wild stuff.
• Mel Stone, “God Knows” — Off the brand-new four-song EP “Coast,” this piano-driven number ain’t exactly upbeat. It’s earnest and honest – “Baby, I can’t be your soft landing” – and builds into a military cadence before getting huge in the finish.
• Spencer Albee, “The Favour Conundrum” — Albee’s first solo work since 2017, this is the debut single off the upcoming “Popsicko, Vol. 2,” which is quite the promise, given the sparklingly good nature of Vol. 1, two decades ago. This piece is a subdued version of his trademark pop, a whisper in contrast to earlier blasts.
• Late Night Clouds Project, “Lullabies” — OK, maybe this is the most out there on the Milled Pavement label. A single 30-minute track set to lo-def video, there’s everything from speaking in tongues to minute-long single keyboard notes.
• Dead. In the Gutter, “Undead” — Released for Halloween, this collaboration between Dave Gutter and Bensbeendead., whose voices mesh wonderfully, comes with a video about having an undead girlfriend and is appropriately creepy: “Maybe I can be your zombie?”
— Sam Pfeifle