Monday, July 11, 2011
California Lite - Key Losers
P. W. Elverum & Sun Ltd. ELV023
This record came out on Phil Elverum's indie label and was recorded by him although the actual production is attributed to the band. Key Losers is Katy Davidson's new project/group. She was formerly in Dear Nora, actually she was Dear Nora. Dear Nora started as an actual group but after their first album, "We'll Have a Time," their music was basically Davidson with occasional guest musicians. I liked those albums because Davidson is a good songwriter and those albums have a nice intimate vibe to them. On the other hand I like a rhythm section too so I welcome Davidson's return to a group setting. I saw her new group open for Mount Eerie a few weeks ago and I enjoyed her set. They performed as a trio with Nicholas Krgovich on keyboards and Tom Filardo on guitar. Both played on the album as did several other musicians not at the show. I bought this record from her at the concert and she threw in a free download of the Key Loser's first mini-album "Adjust" which alas only exists as a tape or a MP3, my least favorite musical formats. "Adjust" does show the Key Losers to be a departure from Dear Nora. It has a Middle Eastern flavor on "Ancient Plain" and the psychedelic "Thought I Was" which I think is one of the best songs Davidson has ever done. There were some percussion-driven songs that I would never even have guessed were Davidson's if I heard them on the radio. "California Lite" does not sound much like "Adjust" although it doesn't sound much like Dear Nora either. The record is a concept album about Southern California. I believe it was inspired by her experiences living in Long Beach which I think is depicted on the back cover. Southern California has been a muse for countless rock artists over the years ranging from the paeans of the Beach Boys and the Briggs to the ridicule of Frank Zappa and Randy Newman. I don't think I've ever heard anything quite like this before though. Davidson's California is not Brian Wilson's California of surf, hot rods and girls nor the Eagles' California of decadence, sluts and cokeheads. Her vision is more realistic, a dissection of ordinary SoCal life, the kind of thing an outsider might notice but which an Angelino would consider mundane. The song "Metal Masks" describes a trip on the 405 freeway through the westside of Los Angeles while listening to Animal Collective, something I've done but it would never occur to me to write a song about it. The chipper tune almost makes driving on the freeway sound like fun. "Smoggy Mountain High" describes the allure of the local mountains which seem so tantalizingly close but which are so far away when you consider the effort and traffic one must overcome to get to them. "Horizon Line" and "Real Time Here" evoke the local elements, the wind and the ubiquitous sunshine that are the primary features of SoCal weather even in the winter. "Real Time Here" was previously recorded by Davidson in 2007 on the Lloyd & Michael CD "Just As God Made Us," but I like the new version better. "Permanent" suggests to me a trip to the desert where one's sense of isolation and alienation are heightened. I think alienation is one of the key themes in this record which is expressed in songs like "Cheap Display" and "We Are A Program" which describe people isolated from each other and their environment. Davidson sets William Stafford's poem "Bi-Focal" to music in a song of the same name. It is not a poem about Los Angeles, but its discussion of the difference between reality and perception, is certainly applicable to the city with its obsession with appearances. This also is expressed in the music. "Limited Time" seems like a laid-back ballad befitting the album title but then injects bursts of dissonance into the chorus suggesting the tension underneath the bucolic SoCal lifestyle. I hear this also in the sharp bursts of jazz saxophone that punctuate the cheerful music of "Metal Masks" as well as in the musical effects that pop up sporadically through out the mellow "Bi-Focal" which remind me of car horns (in terms of effect not sound.) In "Permanent" the dissonance comes from distorted electric guitars, bubbling underneath the surface of an otherwise lovely tune. I find this dynamic tension within the music to be very stimulating. Because of the size of the band on this record, this music is more muscular than Dear Nora, especially on the bottom with the dominant bass and the direct, almost tribal drumming. I like the groovy 70s funkiness of the music on "Smoggy Mountain High" which is one of my favorite songs on the record. This song like several on the record features multi-layered vocals which creates a richer sound as well. "Real Time Here" also has a 70s flavor to it, kind of like an alternative rock synthesis of Jefferson Starship and Fleetwood Mac. The upbeat music masks the confused feelings of the protagonist struggling to find what is real. "We Are a Program" is the most interesting song on the record. It is a drony, dissonant dirge reminiscent of Nico and shows how much Davidson's music benefits from a full band. "Weight of the World" which closes the album is the only song I don't like very much although it is consistent with the musical style of the record - mellow funky music mixed with incomprehensible distorted vocals and chunks of musical dissonance. It is an interesting song, but I hate the vocals which remind me of a cat in heat. Overall I find that listening to this record gives me pleasure, yet I would not describe it as a happy record, it is actually a rather depressing vision of urban life. I can relate to Davidson's view of Southern California and there have been times when I've felt the things she describes. However the nice thing about Southern California is that it is so large and diverse that it can offer almost any experience you want if you look for it. This is an excellent record that rewards repeated listening. Hooking up with Phil Elverum as a production partner was a great choice, he's a guy who knows how to get a big sound out of very little without overwhelming the songs. I think it is an exciting development in Davidson's career and I'm optimistic about her future recordings. Recommended for post-folk Joni Mitchell fans.