Corey Dargel is compared to Stephin Merritt with almost inevitable regularity. His laconic, deadpan vocal delivery and his music's transparent electronic textures make the reference irresistible, although truth be told, neither Dargel's distinctive songwriting voice, nor, for that matter, his actual voice, are all that similar to Merritt's. However, listening to his first official release, Less Famous Than You (which drops May 1), I kept thinking of someone else entirely... Randy Newman, circa Sail Away and Good Old Boys.
No, wait... seriously, stay with me here.... The songs on Less Famous Than You are all internal monologues delivered by emotional cripples -- fanboy stalkers, media-whore parents, detoxing addicts, hydrophobes, agnosia patients, and self-loathers of all stripes. Of course, Dargel's music sounds absolutely nothing like Newman's (then or now), but his uncanny ability to get deep inside the heads of the characters he portrays, combined with the confessional lyrics, delivered with absolute sincerity but inviting equal parts empathy and repulsion, are very much in the spirit of classic Newman songs like "Marie" and "Guilty." And the idea of a relatively unknown (albeit rapidly rising) figure like Dargel making his recorded debut with a collection of songs about famous people (and the people who love them) isn't that much different from RN singing "Lonely At The Top" in front of 12 people at the Bitter End back in the day.
Dargel's tunes are full of vintage-sounding electropop timbres. He overlays deceptively simple patterns and fragmentary beats to create subtly shifting rhythmic undercurrents. What might initially feel like a stable, comforting musical foundation usually turns out to be a thing in constant internal flux, with parts being passed around and added or subtracted from the overall texture. The bass might draw down so a barely audible midrange figure can come out, or the beat might melt away to allow a subordinate rhythmic pattern to take over. The melodies are often fragmentary and the phrasing lands in unexpected places, giving the tunes a conversational ebb and flow that perfectly compliments Dargel's lyrics.
The second track on the record, "I'll Drown," has the exact kind of descending bass line that always slays me, overlaid with crystalline high-register figures that become increasingly blurry as the song goes on, setting the scene for the narrator's plea to his lover that he not be made to set foot on a cruise ship.
"Gay Cowboys" is the only song on this album I was previously familiar with. The album version of this track is now available as a freebie download from Dargel's site, so I recommend you go get. This is one of Dargel's most autobiographical-sounding songs, and also one of his wittiest -- "the gay-affirmative Starbucks / has lost its charm" still makes me grin every time.
"Withdrawl" continues in the lineage of Dargel's series of songs about pharmaceuticals -- he name-checks buphrenorphine, a methadone-like opiod often given to recovering heroin addicts. Sadly, it's stopped working for the self-pitying, Chekhov-reading narrator, who still has sixty hellish days of detox left. In fact, the only thing holding him together seems to be the fantasy that he and his lover will "get back together like we were never apart / and as my nerves get better, so will my heart." The music is all electronic pinpricks, with Dargel's voice floating forlornly over top.
The opening phrase of "The News" sees Dargel breaking out of his usual midrange deadpan, shooting up into a clear falsetto at the climax of the line. This sets up a bit of uncomfortably personal media criticism from someone so enthralled with a journalist that he desperately wants all the news to be about the object of his desire.
Dargel's whole aesthetic expresses so much personal vulnerability, it may seem unfair (sadistic, even) to ask for more, but nonetheless, about three-quarters of the way through the album, I found myself thinking, "You know, the vocal doubling/thickening effects are all subtle and cool and effective, but I would like to hear just the straight sound of Corey's voice before the record's out." Sure enough, the album's tenth track, "Change The World," gave me exactly that -- unadorned voice plus acoustic piano and acoustic drums, an aural counterpoint to the refrain "my heart is not a metronome."
"Like A Ghost" is a skittish, disorienting track, opening with a brief, searing lead synth bit that suggests feedback-driven guitar, followed by an active bass line accompanied by a stuttering drum machine pattern. Of all the songs on Less Famous Than You, this is the one most explicitly about celebrity, artifice, and the toll of fame-driven power imbalances. The anthemic chorus "I watched you conceal / everything I loved the most about you" seems like it could be an encapsulation of the whole record.
By rights, Less Famous Than You should put Corey Dargel on the map as a prodigiously talented, entertaining, and original singer-songwriter. He's scheduled to open for Owen Pallett (aka Final Fantasy) in London, Nottingham, and Manchester in May, but you can hear him in NYC this Friday, April 28, 8:30 PM at the Listening Room of Bruckner Bar in the Bronx, along with Dan Fishback, The Lisps, and Ching Chong Song.
The official NYC CD release for Less Famous Than You, though, is May 22, 8:30 PM at the Cornelia Street Café -- save the date.
[FULL DISCLOSURE DEPT: This is the first review copy of a CD I've ever gotten for this blog. Surely you noticed how this review was all extra-professional and objective-like? And, hey, anyone else wants to send me review copies, you know how to reach me.]