Sad Sack Solo Acts
Dan Wilson and Justin Currie Wonder Why You're So Happy

So, the Red Sox won the World Series. Again.

I know, I should be jumping out of my skin with glee, but this time, I’m just kind of… ambivalent. I watched all the games, particularly that nail-biter of a finale, and I cheered when they pulled it off. But it’s just not the same as it was in 2004. It’s similar – the team came back from the brink in the championship series, then steamrollered all over the National League in the big games. But it’s not the same.

I guess you can only erase an 86-year drought once, but the Sox are perilously close to becoming a dynasty, and that’s a major shift in identity for fans of the team. Also, I probably would have enjoyed the World Series more if the Rockies had shown up and put up a fight. After a while, it was like rooting for the schoolyard bully. I don’t want my team to be the Yankees, despised far and wide, looked on as the big dog pissing on the little people.

So yeah, they won again. They have nothing to be ashamed of – they played hard, they out-hit and out-pitched the competition, and very little of it had to do with the big-name, big-money players. It was the farm league guys like Pedroia and Ellsbury that made the difference. They didn’t buy the series. They’re just the best team. So why am I so defensive about it? I don’t know. It’s a weird place to be. It’s possible I’m just never happy, and I should just enjoy the win. I’m just finding it harder this time.

Are any other Sox fans out there feeling the same way?

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I have to mention Pushing Daisies before it inevitably goes away.

Like Wonderfalls before it, Pushing Daisies is a wonderful show from the mind of Bryan Fuller. Here’s the concept. Ned the pie maker has an unexplained, unexplainable gift – he can bring the dead back to life. One touch, they come back. Next touch, they’re dead again, this time for good. And if Ned leaves a dead person alive for longer than one minute, something or someone else has to die to balance the scales.

It’s bizarre, but beautiful, especially when you get to the plot – Ned revives his childhood sweetheart, and can’t bring himself to kill her again. But now he can’t touch her, ever, and the show is largely about how these two fall in love without the luxury of physical contact. It’s also about blackmail schemes, murder plots and retired synchronized swimmers, but you expect a measure of weirdness from Fuller, and this is all wondrous, fairy-tale weirdness.

And like Wonderfalls before it, this show is destined for an early grave, and no mystical touch from Ned will revive it. So watch it while you can. It’s the best new show of the season, a Tim Burton-esque fable with crackling dialogue and terrific characters and more than a sprinkle of magic dust. It’s probably already too late to save this show, but however many episodes are left, it’s worth watching and getting lost in. Pushing Daisies airs on ABC Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EST.

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So I’m all set to write this column about depressing solo debuts when I get the news that one of my favorite depressing solo artists, Aimee Mann, has picked a title for her new record.

Mann, you may remember, was the leader of Til Tuesday in the ‘80s, before splitting and issuing an amazing first solo album with Whatever in 1993. Never the happiest of songwriters anyway, Mann’s solo career has been one heartbreaking tale of lost hope after another, and the only song I’ve heard from the new one, “31 Today,” certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score: “I thought my life would be different somehow, I thought my life would be better by now…”

So what did she call the album? Fucking Smilers. Seriously.

It will probably be written like @#!% Smilers, but you can just hear her muttering the phrase under her breath as she walks past one of Joe Jackson’s happy loving couples, can’t you? “What the hell are you so happy about? Don’t you know the world is a cesspool? What’s wrong with you?” I love it.

Mann’s solo career has been an organic transition from the shinier pop of her Til Tuesday years, but a pair of just-released solo debuts from a couple of other popsters may leave you scratching your head a little. Both of these guys have taken the opportunity to make a clean break from their old styles, and deliver somber, serious records.

If you know Dan Wilson at all, you know him as the lead singer of Semisonic, the band behind “Closing Time.” In 1998, that song was everywhere, followed closely by “Singing in My Sleep,” the second single from Feeling Strangely Fine. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny the way tunes like these get stuck in your head, and that’s down to the craft of classic pop songwriters like Wilson.

Semisonic made one more album, 2001’s expensive-sounding All About Chemistry, before splitting. Six years later, here’s Wilson’s long-rumored solo debut, Free Life, and he’s scrubbed his music clean of the fizzy pop effervescence it once had. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the 13 slow dances here do all stick to the same slow tempo, and none of them are as effortlessly ingratiating as his work with Semisonic.

The lyrics also work against this record. They are cliché-ridden and typical, miles away from the smart pop poetry he used to turn out. While he may have been going for soul-baring, he ended up with treacly more often than not. The song titles say it all: “Baby Doll,” “Come Home Angel,” “Sugar,” “Cry,” “Golden Girl,” and on and on. Oddly, I’d think these were fine titles for sugary pop songs, but these are open-hearted coffeehouse ballads, and I wish they sounded a bit more personal.

But hell, for all I know, these could be straight out of Wilson’s diary. His voice is still the sweet, even instrument it’s always been, and when he hits on a melody worth remembering, as he does on the title track, he earns his reputation. Songwriters love this guy, and for good reason – the music here is very well written, and perfectly arranged. Even something as potentially embarrassing as “Come Home Angel,” which opens with the words “Oh love, the moment that we live now will stay with me forever and ever,” has a captivating piano-led melody and a chorus you’ll want to sing along with.

And when he gets to the good stuff, like the semi-uptempo “Against History” or the lounge waltz with a twist “Honey Please,” Wilson strikes… well, not gold, but maybe bronze. Wilson’s got pure pop skills, and I wish he made more use of them on Free Life, especially after such a long wait. Not to keep bringing her up, but when Aimee Mann makes albums like this, I can tell she feels every song, and wants you to feel them, too. Wilson’s album is competent balladry, but little more, and I was hoping for a richer experience.

Faring much better is Justin Currie, leader of Scottish poppers Del Amitri. With his partner Ian Harvie, Currie has been turning out literate, bright melodic rock with Del Amitri since 1985. They had a couple of hits – “Always the Last to Know,” “Roll to Me” – but they’ve always been one of those bands that doesn’t stamp a clear identity on their work. People know Del Amitri songs, but they don’t know the band at all, and a song like “Roll to Me” is just one of those anonymous tunes that many people probably imagine ends up on the radio all by itself.

So only the fans will be surprised by the opening title track on Currie’s solo debut, What is Love For. Currie sings the bitter hymn backed by a harp and an orchestra, and it sets the tone for this slow, sad, thoroughly captivating record. I don’t know what it is that sets this above Wilson’s effort, but it may just be that Currie is angrier and more depressed, and expresses it in more interesting ways. Much as I dislike the album’s title, the opening song completely dispenses with love as a subject worth writing about, and Currie takes that to heart, penning one down-in-the-dirt wallow after another.

You’re going to remember a John Lennon-style bitchslap like “Something in That Mess,” or a velvety gut-punch like “If I Ever Loved You,” a song that makes indifference seem like hell. “Love can make your world bring you alive,” Currie sings, before delivering the blow: “But I wasn’t dead before, so baby, you ain’t hard to survive…” Currie switches from pianos to acoustic guitars, and incorporates strings here and there, but the pervasive bitterness remains from first song to last.

If the first nine songs don’t leave you feeling wasted and exhausted, the last two should do the trick. “Still in Love” sounds like it might be sweet, but the hook line is “I’m still in love with nothing but myself.” “I know all their mothers’ ages, I know all the stories so well,” he sings over a gentle piano backing. “And I know I’ll see their faces in hell.” Confession or not, this song is self-hatred at its finest.

But it’s merely a palate-cleanser for the grand finale, “No, Surrender.” Notice that comma – this is the bleakest state-of-the-world song I’ve heard in years. Over an orchestral backdrop, Currie lists off the reasons modern life isn’t worth living, and then hits you with this chorus:

“Should you stand and fight, should you die for what you think is right
So your useless contribution will be remembered?
If you’re asking me, I say no, surrender.”

And then you slit your wrists. Never the happiest man on Earth, Justin Currie has delivered, in the guise of a pop album, a treatise on hopelessness that stands with some of the most depressing records I’ve ever heard. These songs sound lived-in, to the point that I’m actually kind of worried about Currie – is he okay? What happened to him? What makes someone write a piece like “No, Surrender”? This is the real stuff, a pop album that sounds like a warm bath at first, but ends up feeling like drowning. It’s so bleak it’s almost dangerous, and that’s the mark of something deeply felt.

It will be difficult for Currie to slip back into Del Amitri’s hooky pop guise after this, if that’s even his plan. What is Love For is a surprise and a half, and despite its blasé title, it’s highly recommended for those who want to spend 44 minutes alone, isolated, wrapped in a blanket, entombed in sound and emotion. I’m not sure how Currie will follow this, but it sheds new light (new darkness?) on a songwriter I’d taken for granted. It’s an entirely successful solo debut, and it is, to borrow a title from his band, truly twisted.

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I’m not going to have much to write about next week, so I think I’ll save my massive Tom Baker analysis for then. Apologies to everyone looking forward to the giant robot. He’ll be here next week.

We’ve pretty much heard the best of 2007 by now, I think, but there are still records from Sigur Ros, Duran Duran, Seal and Queensryche to come, along with live documents from Phish, Barenaked Ladies and Frank Zappa. Plus, the year will go out with a fabulous bang, as Rufus Wainwright will release his recreation of Judy Garland’s 1961 shows at Carnegie Hall on CD and DVD on December 4.

Watch Pushing Daisies this week. You’ll be glad you did.

See you in line Tuesday morning.