Melody Makers
New Ones From Guster and David Mead

At the bottom of this column you will find my half-year report on the progress of my top 10 list. It’s radically different than it was three months ago, and is half-comprised of records that have come out since March. This is the way it always happens – old favorites are reconsidered (see Belle and Sebastian) and new favorites leap to the top of the heap, waiting for time and perspective (see Keane).

I guess I’m trying to say that it’s not final, and nothing is set in stone. July, especially, is a huge month for new music – we’ve got Johnny Cash, Muse, Sufjan Stevens, Thom Yorke, Bruce Cockburn, the Lost Dogs, Tom Petty, and an ambitious project from the Early November, and then August brings Ani DiFranco, Matthew Friedberger, the Mars Volta, and many others. The list is constantly changing, ever fluid, up until (and sometimes after) I post the final draft in December.

And to kick it off right, I opened my mailbox this morning and found Bill Mallonee’s new album, Permafrost. It’s his first full-band effort (he calls this band Victory Garden) since the Vigilantes of Love broke up. I’m spinning it now, and it sounds like a good one.

But that’s not what I want to talk about this week.

I want to discuss melodies, and their all-important place at the top of my criteria for music I love. I am an avowed melody addict – I can’t explain it. Nothing inspires my love like a well-crafted melody, and nothing sparks my ire (or, more likely, my boredom and apathy) like a lazy song that just lies there. Quite a lot of modern music is based around the sound, the texture, the beat, and while these are all important elements, I feel that they’re the supporting cast, and the star should be the song, the melody.

But really, that’s the wrong film analogy. A good melody is like a good script – you can pump all the money and star power and special effects you like into a movie, but if it doesn’t have a good script, then the actors are going to look silly while the budget tries to distract you from the dialogue. It’ll be empty, no matter how much money it makes, and while the corporate suits will be happy with it, it won’t stand the test of time.

What constitutes a good script is open to debate, of course, but for me, it needs to be smart and confident, setting a tone and sticking with it. And the dialogue needs to crackle, or at least sound like people really talking. The best movies, as far as I’m concerned, contain moments I’ve never seen before, lines I’ve never heard, and layers of meaning that tell me something about the world and my place in it. Some people don’t need that, of course, and will enjoy a movie because it looks cool and expensive. I’m not one of them.

That all sounds so snobby, but the point is this – the core of the movie is the script, the blueprint, just like the song, the words and music written down on paper (sometimes), is the core of music. You can take a good song and put it into nearly any setting, and record it for 10 bucks or 10 million bucks, and it will still be a good song. The execution is its own matter – sometimes cheap recording (or too-expensive recording) can tarnish the finished product. But if the song, the core, is good, it will shine through.

Take Guster as an example. A lot of ink has been spent (even digital ink from this very site) on the way this Boston quartet now records its albums. Guster used to be the only pop band I can think of that exclusively used hand percussion, but with 2003’s Keep It Together, they switched to traditional drums. Some were dismayed, but most heard the quality of the songs on that album, including the fan-bloody-tastic “Amsterdam,” and realized that the switch didn’t matter that much. The bongos were trappings, and the core remained rock-solid.

And that’s the problem with their fifth album, Ganging Up on the Sun. The trappings are the same, if not a little better – Guster still has that appealing Toad the Wet Sprocket sound, only this time the production is glittering and dynamic, including keyboards, mandolins, trumpets, slide guitars, and waves of backing vocals. This album sounds great. But except for a few songs here and there, it isn’t great. The direction and effects are wonderful, but the script is weak.

Ganging Up on the Sun simmers to life with “Lightning Rod,” a whispery number that floats out on an “ooh-ooh” refrain. “Satellite” is next, and is one of the album’s best tunes, a mid-tempo acoustic number that even includes some of the once-trademark bongos. It’s smooth as silk, and goes down easy, but it’s over before it gets anywhere too exciting. “Manifest Destiny” fares better, because its junky Beatles vibe is so unfamiliar in the context of a Guster album, but it doesn’t really stick until the choral finale.

This is Guster’s most sedate album, full of slower songs and atmospheres, and even an obvious single like “One Man Wrecking Machine” is smoothed out. The band takes some sonic detours, like the folksy “The Captain” and the near-psychedelic “Ruby Falls,” but throughout this whole album, they never once hit upon a melody that will stay with you. The energy level is pretty low throughout, too – only once, on “The New Underground,” does Guster the rock band come to the fore.

“Ruby Falls” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The sound is very Traffic, with neat guitar chords played slowly over drums and organ, but it never really goes anywhere. It stretches to seven minutes, with a distorted solo in the middle and a horn-fueled section at the end and rippling vocal harmonies, and it’s all very pretty, but it doesn’t do a whole lot. After seven minutes of that, you’d think the band would want to kick the pace up a little, but they sequence middling tune “C’Mon” next, as if they want your attention to wander.

I’m being mean, I know, but this is the first Guster album that never rises above pleasant, and after a string of very good, very melodic efforts, it’s a let-down. By the time it’s over, I’ve forgotten most of the songs, which has never happened with a Guster record before – I can still hum every track on Lost and Gone Forever, their masterpiece. Ganging Up on the Sun isn’t bad, not really, but it just isn’t very interesting. It’s like a pleasant Sunday drive. It beats being at work, but it’s not as much fun as almost anything else you could do with your weekend.

If you want a real melodic pop album, you can’t do much better than David Mead’s Tangerine. If not for Dr. Tony Shore, I’d never have heard of this guy – he urged me to buy Mead’s EP Wherever You Are last year, and I loved it, especially the haunting “Astronaut.” And I went on a mission to find and purchase the other three Mead albums – the great The Luxury of Time, the less-great, Adam-Schlesinger-produced Mine and Yours, and the fantastic, mostly acoustic Indiana. All in all, a great career, and the self-released Tangerine tops them all.

The secret, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is the melodies. Mead writes some incredible melodies, ones that swoop and dive and take hairpin turns and go unexpected places. Each of his albums sounds different from the last – you can’t get much more diverse, sonically, than the stripped-down Indiana, the glossy Wherever You Are, and the delightful chamber-pop of this new one – but the songwriting remains the same, and of the same high caliber.

Tangerine is David Mead’s Great Leap Forward, a pop album so self-assured and perfectly executed that it gives its obvious influences, like Paul McCartney, a run for their money. The album, produced by Brad Jones, is Mead’s most accomplished-sounding work, full of clavinets, percussion, pianos, ukeleles, mandolins, glockenspiels and many different guitars, most of which are played by the artist himself. It opens with a brief instrumental wonderland, then segues into “Hard to Remember,” a classic piece of three-ring-circus music that sways like Jellyfish’s “Brighter Day.”

Other highlights include “Chatterbox,” a thumping monster with a clavinet part right out of “Misty Mountain Hop”; “Reminded #1,” a lovely a cappella tune with a great chorus; and “Hallelujah, I Was Wrong,” a piano-powered delight. But every song here is a highlight in its own right, from the epic scope of “Hunting Season” to the light McCartney-isms of “Sugar on the Knees” to the beauty of the closing ballad “Choosing Teams.” It’s all great. It also does something the Guster album doesn’t manage – it sounds mature without sounding dull.

Throughout, Mead never loses track of his gift for hummable songs with tricky structures. I can’t emphasize that enough – Mead obviously spent a long time crafting the classic pop sound of this album, but even if he decided to just release his acoustic demos, Tangerine would still be an excellent batch of songs. I’m not saying he should have done that, though, because the production is superb, and worth every second of work Mead and Jones put into it. It’s a case of both the script and the direction being just about perfect, like a Wes Anderson movie.

Tangerine is absolutely one of the best records of the year, which means that at least one-tenth of the list that follows is no mystery. It’s also a grower, and it keeps gaining in significance and wonder each time I hear it, so it may even chart higher by year’s end. Or, you know, half a dozen more fantastic albums might nudge it from the list entirely. You never know.

Anyway, here is my mid-year report. The top 10 list, as it stands right now:

#10: Quiet Company, Shine Honesty.
#9: The Violet Burning, Drop-Dead.
#8: Belle and Sebastian, The Life Pursuit.
#7: Paul Simon, Surprise.
#6: The Alarm, Under Attack.
#5: David Mead, Tangerine.
#4: Grandaddy, Just Like the Fambly Cat.
#3: Ross Rice, Dwight.
#2: Mute Math.
#1: Keane, Under the Iron Sea.

Take that for what it’s worth, because I hope it won’t look like that in six months. But every one of those albums are perfect examples of what I’m talking about – their authors value melody and songcraft above all else, and the best of them, especially the top two, use their solid songs as foundations to explore new sonic territory.

And that’s what it’s all about.

Next week, I promise I’ll be a lot less snobby and technical, because I’ll be talking about Johnny Cash’s final album, American V: A Hundred Highways.

See you in line Tuesday morning.