Click to hear: “Glass Collecter“
A week after my daughter turned eight, she asked, “When you write a song, does it have to be true?”
Short answer: yes.
Metal Feathers rolls out one great, true song after another, but don’t mistake true for earnest, autobiographical, preachy, or meaningful. Jay Lobley’s songs are elliptical journeys — fictional fragments, scenes or stories — that evoke a mordant sensibility, a sharp and witty way of seeing the world. His songs are richly imagined, but not nearly as ponderous as the sentence you just read.
Lobley has been writing terrific songs for years — you may know his early work in Extendo-Ride, or the dazzling results of his rapid development in the two years (and two albums) he put into Cult Maze. A little over a year ago, when he formed a new band, it seemed doubtful he could improve as a songwriter, but on Metal Feathers, his songs seem even better for being more streamlined and, frankly, shorter. Four tracks work their magic in a mere 2:40 or so; five more are little more than three minutes. Some tunes — “Visita,” “Glass Collecter,” “Frency,” “Roll of the Dice” — have the air of instant classics, shooting out of the gate with infectious rhythms and melodies, superb singing, and anthemic choruses. Any one of them may make you think, This is my favorite song ever.
Metal Feathers is slightly disheveled by design. Lobley originally toyed with the idea of forming a band of non-musicians; later, he considered having musicians play instruments unfamiliar to them. He wanted to impose limitations or impediments on the group — and on himself as a songwriter — to yield more direct, unkempt music. In the end, he plays his trusty blue Jazzmaster, and his brother, Derek, plays his “usual” instrument, keyboards, but the essence of the original idea survives.
The stubble is most evident in the rhythm section. Jason Rogers — highly regarded as the guitarist, songwriter, and frontman of Diamond Sharp — plays forceful, deliberate, mostly unadorned bass parts. Yet it may be Althea Pajak, a talented rock-and-roll rookie, who best embodies the spirit of Metal Feathers. Her non-traditional drum kit — a bass drum flipped on its side and struck with a stick; a snare; a cymbal; a permanently closed high-hat and a mounted tambourine — is more than just a symbol of the band’s bargain-basement approach. Pajak’s embrace of this modified kit traces a line back through Heather Lewis of Beat Happening to the Velvets’ Moe Tucker. It’s a defining choice. As my drummer son points out, “If you’re not allowed to use both feet and both hands to do four different things at the same time, well, you’ve got to rethink everything.” Pajak’s use of this drum kit restrains the band from getting too fancy.
Metal Feathers was smart to make homemade recordings at Gully’s Loft rather than work in a traditional studio. The first tracks the band recorded are the grittiest (the group used the phrase “no mix” mix for one early version). Some later recordings, with a few crunchy edges smoothed out, are cleaner and more supple. Aided in part by Casey McCurry’s fine mastering, the album’s overall sound is dynamic, both messy and detailed, and coherent. Derek’s Ace-Tone organ blends seamlessly with Jay’s fuzzy guitars, creating a thick bed for vocal and instrumental melodies. Derek occasionally offers a hook or flourish on the keys, and he contributes a few memorable solo vocal lines, such as the Lennonesque bridge of “Frency” and one of the backwards exclamations in “All for Blood.” The album scatters loads of production tricks — nearly every track has some kind of aural shenanigans — that are charmingly humble, given what’s possible in the age of software. For instance, “Embrace” begins with a quiet guitar intro snipped from a demo recording. This is artfully spliced to a later recording, creating a compelling shift in pitch and dynamics at the moment the track kicks in with Pajak’s snare hits.
Every one of the 11 songs here makes me laugh or smile. It’s the feisty way Jason and Derek sing vocal responses (“All for blood, we do it all for blood!”) and the Kinksian cockiness of Jay’s singing (“Your letters take too long”). It’s an inspired and surprising image (“I will taunt her every night / ’til she floats over my bed,” from “Stretch the Wonder”). It’s the treated vocals and backwards sound a la late-model Beatles in “Blind for You.” And it’s the fabulous chemical reaction that comes from the blending of pleasing, childlike melody, cheerily sloppy unison-singing, cartoon thickets of guitar distortion, and loopy, self-referential lyrics, like “The MF CD / Rare Sex Record Company” (from the album’s first track, “Glamour Skulls”).
Jay Lobley’s melodies, words and vocals plop the listener down in a distinctive place and time, seeing through the eyes of his characters: the shut-in and the salesman in “Visita,” the eccentric shopper and the bored clerk in “Glass Collecter.” Lobley’s become expert at inhabiting and presenting the people in his songs straight, in a way that jettisons sentimentality entirely. In this sense he’s like a scientist, observing and then coolly pinning moths to the display board. In the happy-sounding first verse of “Frency,” there’s a note of wickedness in the way he sings about a Scrabble-playing prostitute using words “to let her fears travel / to a place where her heart disease is just a heartache.”
The album breaks nicely into two parts. “Glamour Skulls” is a perverse curtain-raiser that doubles as a sneaky statement of identity (“There’s a sound just out of reach / ‘Glamour Skulls at Haunted Beach’”). Then the band unloads a series of great songs in different shades of power-pop and rock, ending with the slightly melancholic “Stretch the Wonder.” A dopey, 47-second palate cleanser, “Call It a Night,” wraps up the first part of the album.
Starting with “Embrace,” a heavy, powerful song that’s downright Pollardesque in its oblique, suggestive imagery, Part Two rocks a bit harder. Yet it also contains “Tough,” a delicate, lovely snapshot of the sadness just under the surface of things. Fittingly, Metal Feathers climaxes not prettily but crudely, with another splice, a bookend to the splice that jump-started the album’s second side. A titanic rocker, “Roll of the Dice” starts full tilt and rolls down the highway, strewing delights — a hilarious touch of Iggy on the line “walk my dawwg,” zesty falsetto doo-doo doo-doo’s leading up to the crowd-pleasing chorus: “I was the maid of honor / right next to Satan’s daughter / that’s why it’s always a roll of the dice.”
This last line is sung and shouted over and over, leading the listener to think this is how the song and the album are going to end — with a big, stirring finish —when bang, that splice knocks the sound into the distance, and we are rudely thrust back to a raw rehearsal recording of “Roll of the Dice.” The splice is made deftly, such that we don’t lose a note or a beat, and the tempo nearly matches up. So we ride this way to the end, hearing Metal Feathers at their lowest fidelity, through the hollow echoes in a humble rehearsal space. It’s a parting wink about the simple pleasures of keeping things raw.
— David Pence
For more on Metal Feathers, visit myspace.com/metalfeathers.