Crossposted in a slightly different form at Linescratchers.*
Blair Hodges, whom you probably know best as an insightful reviewer of smart-person books you never quite manage to read, also does drums and vocals (usually backup) and kazoo for the band Jiminy Finn and the Moneydiggers. We’ll talk more about the kazoo later.
The full band is Blair and Skyler Anderson (lead vocals, guitar, bass, ukulele, harmonica) and Dustin Hales (vocals, guitar, bass, piano). I don’t know a lot about those other guys (and I don’t need to because I’m totally doing the New Criticism, yall), but I do know the band’s based in Utah while Blair’s based in Maryland. The band hints at this difficulty in some not-as-interesting-as-they-thought answering-machine messages hidden at the end of the cd.
That said, the album holds together, no matter the geographical difficulties inherent in its birthing.
In many ways, the instrumentation reminds me of a brand of Utah music that was popular c 2000. The apotheosis of this sound—at least in my mind—is Olea. But that’s probably because in 1999 a member of that band lived across the hall from me in Alta Apartments. Anyway, it was a great little band and you can hear clips from their songs here and you’ll immediately note, if you compare them with clips from Moneydiggers songs, that I’m being unfair to one band or the other.
Yes, yes, they share some acoustic instrumentation and a folky sensibility and That Utah Sound, but Olea is more successfully poppy, has tighter playing and production, and an almost EFY clarity of vocals (to say nothing of their almost EFY sincerity).
Jiminy Finn and the Moneydiggers meanwhile are checking a different set of boxes. Might be better to compare them to nonUtah contemporaries like Mumford & Sons which, while still folky and perhaps even poppy, leaves on the rough edges. They sound like a rock band—not classically trained music majors playing rock music.
The key to the puzzle that is Campfire Carols is Skyler’s voice. The cd starts with a nice simple acoustic guitar and crickets and some ahs and oos. Lovely.
Then we move to the first real song, “Lo Que Sea”. As we get to the second verse, Skyler turns up the vocals to deliver delightfully weird lines of absurdist wit (I’m adding occasional line breaks for our convenience—in the liner notes, there are none):
Once upon a time there was someone who did somethin’.
I’d rather give a man a fish than teach him how to gainfully cross-stich.
Miss Susie had a steamboat, singin’ “Carol of the Bells.”
That’s good enough, just wrap it up, it’s just as well.
Skyler’s vocal volume and intensity suggest an increased emotional import, the lyrics and his voice fail to keep up.
As the album progresses, Skyler’s not-quite-up-to-the-job voice presents lyrics like the following:
Baby, I swear you’ll never find in your life another guy who loves you as much as I’d like to assume that I love you. Maybe love’s not quite the word; if nothing else I would prefer to be with you if my only other option was being alone. (“I Guess I Want to Be with You”)
Eventually, just you and me, I’ll leave the band behind and stand by your side, least until a new song comes to mind. (“I’ve Got to Write a Song Tonight”)
Uglier guys than me and worse singers have gone rather far. So I thought I’d try it out on the next pretty girl who comes my way. I guess you’ll do, baby this one goes out to you. Whoa-oh-oh. Ain’t it sexy when I go “whoa-oh-oh”? (“Universal Love Song”)
I got to admit I love this stuff. I find these sorts of failed-love-song lyrics all kinds of fun and I love singing along to choruses like “I Guess I Want to Be with You”‘s while I do the dishes. And for all my snide asides about the voice, I’m a They Might Be Giants fan. I have some flexibility here.
I think the song that really threw me was “Yeah, I’m a Music Snob (what of it?)”—unlike the poor romantics quoted above, lyrics about a subpar band being music snobs sounds more like hopeful deflection disguised as irony than genuine cleverness. Especially when the conceit returns more than once later in the album. But I can’t dismiss “The Shameless Self-Promotion Song” as mere deflection. The song is genuinely funny. It’s a mix of wittily self-aware crass commercialism—and recognition of the lack of any commercial probability:
CD’s are going fast! In two years we’ve sold half our of our box of fifty. . . .
We’re not above taking money out of pity. That’s how we got this far.
I can’t quite remember now, but it may have been this song that pointed me towards the key for understanding Campfire Carols: Reel Big Fish’s “Sell Out“.
Now, ska has been described with various formulas and ancestries; here’s mine: high-school bandgeeks playing punk. They know more than just three chords on a cheap guitar, but they’ve sold their soul to simplicity and they play its hymns.
That’s a good shorthand for Jiminy Finn and the Moneydiggers: They’re a folk band that’s joined the punk cult.
Once I realized I was dealing with a punk band in disguise, everything else began to fit together. The reason Skyler’s voice ranges from sweet to simply wrong? Spending the chorus offtune is a grand punk tradition.
So. It’s a punk album. That’s why “Music Snob” can skip cleverness and throw in some shoobydoowops and get away with it. A song about a self-aware snob unaware that his self-awareness fails to redeem him? How obnoxious! Pure punk. Let’s go kill some hipsters.
Throwing a kazoo into the song about “How Happiness Destroyed My Band” (meaning Skyler’s previous band Where’s Molly)? Kazoos are for kids and people willing to have fun even if it irritates half the audience.
Then you have a song like “We’re Sticking it to the Man, He Just Doesn’t Know It Yet” which we could call postpunk. And a song like “Frankie’s House” which gets noisy to no apparent purpose. What’s more punk than that?
And then, in closing, let’s move to postpostpunk with “Paul Revere” (the one track with lyrics by Blair), which celebrates America’s original punks: The Founding Fathers.
Suck on that, Sex Pistols.
* with the retirement of Arthur Hatton, Linescratchers has not been as active; in recognition of the resultant drop in traffic, I’ll be posting my posts on music, when appropriate, on both Ls and AMV