REVIEW: Seana Carmody: Struts & Shocks
Seana Carmody: Struts & Shocks [Kimchee, 2002]
Three words? Dances on Pavement.
Sometimes you don't know the perfect kind of music until it hits you between the eyes. Seana Carmody's debut album on Kimchee is pop-rock with a citrus tang, guitar hooks and noisy stabs left open to the air - light, bright and smart. With a voice like a dipped cone, Carmody skips through ten songs with the quirky zip, zap and zoom of Pavement, loosing bubblegum pops amid multitracked vocals, feedback squall and unpredictable melodic bursts. It's summery without being obvious, clear-eyed and singing in the smog.
Songwriters are so often concerned with their own voices or their own words - everything on an album revolving round subtle turns of phrase or the final, predictable melisma. Frontmen release solo albums that yell "Look at me!", and keep yelling, long after we get the picture. Sometimes it's a "Don't I sound fuckin' weird?" moment, stylistic shifts dragged to the middle of the soundstage, with christmas lights and giant neon signs proclaiming "WEIRD, HUH?!". Yeah, David Usher, you used an aria in the middle of a pop-song. Neat. Okay, Stephen Malkmus, that was a pretty witty turn of phrase. Oh, you're going to sing it again? Okay. One more time? Sure.
Carmody, however, has simply launched herself into songs. The lyrics roll off of the sing-along tongue, never cringe-worthy... but they also never call attention to themselves. Struts & Shocks has a sonic scope as wide as a playground - from the slow-burn "don't fuck with me" vibe of "I Can Troll" to the surf "chooba-doo wop wop" of "Rocket Out of Time", to the crash of "Tornadoes", like the slap of a tsunami that glues you to your bed - but again it's unassuming. Each song speaks for itself, it need make no excuses, and these thirty-five minutes fall together like a motley-but-sympathetic crew of old friends. "Rocket Out of Time" is a fine opening: smooth and understated singing filled out with the monster-yawn of guitars and then the sudden burst of confetti (pop!) that nuzzles against that core melody, painting over the drab tones with yellows and scarlets. "Mighty Bull" throws a girlish swagger over latenight bass and the eventual surge of indie-rock guitars. On "Tailgate", Carmody is angrier still - "Tailgate my love, you won't be far behind," she half-growls; Sleater-Kinney applauds from the wings.
And then there's she's the cute girl with the bob haircut who hangs outside the DQ. She whispers wet into your ear: "Give me a secret, from your mouth to mine," then backs away, all coquette, "ooh-ooh-ooh"ing as she pulls out some old Helium and Mirah records. There's actually a lot of Elephant 6 floating around here - old Olivia Tremor Control arrangements bundled together with indie-girl pep. Synth swirls leave "Deirdre" off-kilter, like an old folk song reinterpreted by Helium. "Smoking in the Dark" is simple and sad, guitar strums bolstering words of regret, electronic shivers like sunlight passing over a window.
Struts & Shocks is an album that it's dead-easy to like; it's affectionate without trying, the killer arrangements shimmying up to you with hooks aplenty, Carmody's charm as unforced as the wrinkles in her clothes, the shine in her eye. Far better than, say, Ben Folds or Stephen Malkmus' solo work, this is a talent whose skills are transparent and fine, whose music is ardent, clever, and simple as a picnic.