Monday, February 25, 2008

Lightspeed Champion's Falling Off the Lavender Bridge

Lightspeed Champion - Falling Off the Lavender Bridge (released February 5th, 2008; Domino Records)

Devonte Hynes has changed a great deal since his time with the Test Icicles. His moniker, Lightspeed Champion, first struck me as a name fit for an electro-shock artist, complete with cartoon shades and a neon screen printed tee. Imagine my surprise when I check out his Myspace; he’s bespectacled, but with giant hipster nerd glasses, and favors fur trapper hats over graffiti-splattered flat brims. Apparently he’s fitting the character of thrash-punker turned country musician. No judgment here, just observation. My wiki research has led me to the news that this name is based on a comic strip he drew as a teenager; apparently the nerd look isn't just an act.

Early last year, he traveled to Omaha to record with Saddle Creek, of Bright Eyes fame. There are definite musical similarities to Oberst’s more upbeat moments and recent forays into folk-country territory, though Dev focuses on a stronger driving melody and fuller sound throughout the album. His variety of instruments, from classical strings and winds to more traditional country banjo and steel pedal add interest and cohesion. Also, the unusual pairing of his lyrical content with songwriting style brings a little extra to what would otherwise be a straightforward pop album.

Midnight Surprise, the second UK single, is the equivalent of a centerfold, featuring one of the most successful longer-than-long songs I’ve heard in a while. Clocking in at 9:55, it flows and changes throughout, similar to The Decemberists’ The Island, Come And See, The Landlord's Daughter, You'll Not Feel The Drowning (this doesn’t do The Decemberists justice but it’s the best I can do). The radio friendly version is cut to 3:23, shaping it to a more basic song structure. It takes skill to drag a song out to three times its length without inducing boredom, but this song works, maybe just because the attempt is unusual. The longer length allows for more space between verses, giving him time to build to the chorus with the addition of picked acoustic, banjo and pedal steel. Also, a new melody grows from around the three minute mark, melding into a sweet, minimal female line, then to a layered vocal effect, then a short electric guitar jam and finally to a classical strings chorale which brings all of the elements together. I’m sure the shortened length is passable for many, but I enjoy the experimentation of connection between different lyrics and melodies; call it a pop symphony.

Following this lush sound is Devil Tricks for a Bitch, a solitary wallow in self pity. You know that saying, “Bad things always happen in threes”? That’s just a mindset- people fixate on their problems and blow them out of proportion to fit the stereotype. When they don’t happen in threes, no one notices. This song starts, “'I’m gonna assume that my phone is broken/ Delivery reports have ruined my life/ Half a bowl of cereal's left me choking/ Choking on time”. Everything’s just worse from there; I dislike the song because it’s unashamedly whiny, but I’m sure it’s relatable. Its saving grace is a mature string arrangement that pointedly fits the mood of the song.

The only other song that stands out in its weakness is Salty Water; it’s extremely repetitive and the layered vocals don’t add much interest, while the lyrics (I’m riding so high/ So high upon a wave) can’t save the song.

As far as decent songs go, Let the Bitches Die, Dry Lips, and Everyone I Know is Listening to Crunk have driving melodies matched with lyrics focused on a tired music scene, his depression, and self-loathing. There are wise observations couched in juvenile phrases, as well as sweet flashes of longing and youthful loneliness: “Sometimes in the cold night/ My phone rings/ But it’s not you”.

My favorite song, however, is the first following the intro, Galaxy of the Lost. The reasoning behind its release as first single is clear; it shows his desire, his weakness, his understanding of melodic movement throughout the song, as well as a tune comprised of a solid piano line with classical guitar and strings. The chorus’ melody soars, and is unexpectedly powerful considering his choice of words: “Guzzle down/ My neck will burn as we kiss/ And I’m sick in your mouth/ I know you want more/ Lick my open wounds and add some ice/ And choke on my sick vice/ Oh girl/ The lights are on”. He’s no poetic genius but in a way that works with his music; the candidness of his lyrics is at least personal and better than affected airs.

Though what Dev does is anything but groundbreaking, his catchy pop-country-classical sound is appealing. There are lyrical weaknesses, to be sure, but those can be overlooked in the name of amateur songwriting; the blend of instruments works well with his vocals and scattered harmonies from his female counterpart, creating a decent album.

Grade for the album: 72

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