Here’s a record you will probably hear about.
Nate Ruess has called his first solo record Grand Romantic, and that’s likely a better description of it than any I am about to offer. It is romantic, and it is grand, in that pomp-and-circumstance sense. Though Ruess hails from the band Fun., there isn’t much fun to be found on this record – it’s largely a serious attempt at epic pageantry, and it’s easily the most boring and bland record he has contributed to. Which, of course, means it will be a massive hit.
Looking back, I suppose an album like Grand Romantic was inevitable. Ruess first came to national attention as part of the quirky pop outfit The Format – they issued two quirky pop records in the 2000s, and then broke up without making much of an impact. Ruess then joined up with Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost to form Fun., another quirky pop outfit. They released Aim and Ignite, their quirky pop debut, in 2009, and it also failed to make much of an impact.
And then came Some Nights, the band’s 2012 sophomore effort, and they went big, in more ways than one. Some Nights aimed for scope, trying to position Ruess as a new Freddie Mercury atop some of the fullest and most strident pop songs you’d ever want to hear. Still, they managed to balance it off with some of the old quirkiness – “It Gets Better” and “One Foot” were pretty weird. But it was the massive anthems with the simple hooks that made their name. “Some Nights” and “We Are Young” ranked among the most celebrated hits of that year, and they set Ruess’ course, for better or worse.
Frankly, it’s mostly for worse. Grand Romantic is a plodding collection of ballads and towering, synth-y rallying cries. After a quick introduction, it opens with its best and most interesting song, “Ahha,” named after the wordless call to attention that launches it like a starting gun. It never sits still, sliding from movement to movement over four minutes, its layered “We Will Rock You” verses providing a perfect counter to its typically pompous chorus. Alas, Ruess follows that up with “Nothing Without Love,” the astonishingly boring first single. Generic chords, virtually no hooks (there’s a “na na na” bit I sort of like), just Ruess yelping over thunderous drums and massive synthesizers. It’s almost difficult to get through, honestly.
Here’s the thing – Ruess has a big voice, but it works very well when layered over interesting music. The Format was interesting. Fun. was interesting. But without anything to distract from it, Ruess’ full-throated, always-on voice gets wearying. Yes, it’s impressive, but when he’s singing simple tripe like “Take It Back” at the top of his lungs, it just tires me out. Virtually every song suffers from the same malady – it’s very simple stuff played as if it were the most important music ever made. Even a sprightly pop song like “You Light My Fire” feels weighed down by the ponderous tone of the whole thing. Beck even shows up on the almost-country “What This World is Coming To,” and he adds nothing – no spark, no joy.
All that’s left to focus on, then, is Ruess’ voice and his words. The lyrics are just as generic as the chord progressions here – he’s all about love, both cherished and lost, from “You know that I can’t stop thinkin’ about you” to “I just need a moment to cry.” “It’s a great big storm and we’re holding our own,” he sings, and you can just hear thousands of people singing along with him. Since that seems to be the only purpose behind that song, I’m glad it sounds like it will do the trick. (He does this carnival barker thing near the end of it that makes me want to find a dark hole and crawl down in it.)
And so there’s the voice. I’m actually amazed at how annoying I find that voice on this record. I’ve always liked it, but here he goes for the American Idol up-to-eleven thing on virtually every song. My favorite track in the back half is “It Only Gets Much Worse,” a tender piano piece about delivering bad news in the gentlest way possible. But he over-sings it to death, stomping all over any sense of dynamics and grinding any subtlety into dust. There’s no doubt that this whole album is meant as a showcase of that voice, and the fact that it makes me twitchy and irritated – good lord, the high note just before the two-minute mark of the title track drives me crazy – is just unfortunate.
Unfortunate is a good word for this whole record, actually. In aiming for the grandest music he could, Ruess stripped away everything interesting about what he does – the bright sparks on Grand Romantic are dragged down and drowned by one mediocre, straight-faced reach-for-the-sky plod after another. I didn’t expect to end Ruess’ solo album wishing for a Fun. reunion, but here we are. I do expect, though, that nothing can keep Ruess from solo stardom. Grand Romantic is just the kind of record his accountants were hoping he would make. I wish I were one of his accountants, so I could enjoy it more.
* * * * *
Here’s a record you probably won’t hear about.
Bill Mallonee has been plying his trade for more than 25 years. I’ve lost count of how many albums he has now, between the major releases and the download-only sets and the works in progress and the live records. He’s toiled virtually all of that time in obscurity – I’m not sure Mallonee would know what to do if lots of people started paying attention – but the last decade or so has been particularly painful to witness. Every few weeks, it seems, Mallonee sends an email to his mailing list offering old instruments and gear for sale, objects that have meant a lot to him. He needs to pay rent, you see, and the music just isn’t doing it.
Granted, some of this is self-inflicted. Mallonee writes great songs and makes great records, but he’s been writing the same kind of great song and making the same kind of great record for two decades, hoping the world will change around him. As I mentioned, he puts a lot of music out there, and it can be hard to know where to start, or how to move through his vast catalog. And much of it sounds very similar – strummy heartland rock with observational lyrics and a love of the electric guitar. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Mallonee’s done little else in a quarter-century of music making, so I’m not too surprised that no individual album has captured the public fancy.
So you won’t be hearing a lot about Mallonee’s 712th record, the self-released Lands and Peoples, as it treads the same ground Mallonee’s been walking for his whole career. Here’s the thing, though: he’s very, very good at this. Lands and Peoples is the second album in a row that Mallonee has made almost entirely by himself, playing guitars, bass, drums, harmonicas and other things, but he’s so skilled that you’d never know it. Even more than last year’s Winnowing, this one sounds vibrant and full, couching Mallonee’s aging-yet-strong voice and lower-key songs in ringing, chiming tones. Just on pure sound, this should be on every Americana-loving music fan’s list.
By and large, the songs here are slower than those Mallonee cranked out with Vigilantes of Love, and their viewpoints are more weathered and worn. The result is a sober set of world-weary numbers that find Mallonee holding on to whatever joy he can find. Opener “At Least For a Little While” sets the tone perfectly: “There was a Rosary on the rearview, this time it went unsaid, but if love gets the last word, well maybe I’ll be OK… no more dark clouds, at least for a little while.” From there we get tales of the lonely open road, of northern lights and southern crosses, of endless strings of days, of dust and bones.
Mallonee’s gift with words remains his strongest asset, and it never lets him down here. Much of this record is downtrodden, bowed yet unbroken. “Losing streaks take no pity on the meek, and they’ve got a way of going on for miles,” he sings on “String of Days” (with lovely accompaniment by his partner in life and art, Muriah Rose), and on “Falling Through the Cracks,” he documents a descent: “Take another swallow, take another breath, one life poured out in a million little deaths, you can saturate magnetic tape and bleed through the playback, falling through the cracks…”
But elsewhere, he tackles hard-won hope. The piano-led “I’ll Swing With Everything That I’ve Got” spins gold from its baseball metaphor, its eyes on love: “When it comes to fates and furies, it’s hard to get on base, when you’re playing every game in their park, but ever since my eyes beheld your beauty and your grace, I’ll swing with everything that I’ve got.” On “I Just Hope the Kids Make It Out,” he details the destruction of a town: “Well it all dried up here years ago, they moved it all overseas and let us go, no back-up plan and it’s all gone south, I just hope the kids make it out.”
The biggest surprise this time for me was the rustic title track, on which Mallonee takes aim at American imperialism: “We made promises with fingers crossed, deals brokered with a wink, every bet is firmly hedged with flags and rhetoric…” It’s a tough song, a moment of striking anger that gives this album a nice spark. But Mallonee chooses to end in despair, with “It All Turns to Dust,” the tale of a farmer who gambled and lost. “There’s not much you can count on, but here’s one thing you can trust, everything and everyone, it all turns to dust…”
Lands and Peoples is a dark record, but it’s a good one. It’s the kind of album that can only be made by someone who has been there in the trenches for as long as Mallonee has. At this point, it’s clear that Mallonee is going to do this – exactly this – for as long as he has in him, and he’ll probably do it for the same small group of fans he does it for now. If it isn’t obvious, Mallonee makes this music because he has to, because it pours out of him. Much as I’d like him to try new kinds of songs, new approaches to his work, I accept that this is what he does, and I’m glad to keep listening. Because Bill Mallonee is very, very good at this.
Lands and Peoples is as good a place as any to start listening to Mallonee’s work. If you like that, move just about anywhere in his discography. It’s all available to listen to and buy here.
* * * * *
Next week, a little Richard Thompson and a whole lot of Kamasi Washington, maybe. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.