Weirdly, Slender Means' 2005 debut album, Neon & amp; Ruin (though met with near-unanimous critical acclaim), is boring. I've tried to love it -- really, I have -- but the tidy, tame disc erodes the concert memories I want so badly to preserve.
Frustrated, I asked SM's songwriter, guitarist and singer Josh Dawson if he gives any credence to the criticism that some drama was lost from stage to studio. "Who said that?" he asks; then, good naturedly, "Just kidding. I can see that." He follows with a huge understatement: "It's always a challenge to capture live energy on a recording."
Word. The album's favorable reviews are legion and draw particular attention to Neon & amp; Ruin's "professionalism" and "accomplished" aesthetic -- not misleading in that the disc is full of well-written, precisely performed, carefully recorded songs. Slender Means, though, is the kind of band that benefits by letting it hang out a little. Indeed, concert surprises like a (stellar) impromptu performance of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me" (witnessed at Seattle's Crocodile Caf & eacute;) prove the band has earned the right to take chances.
Two years and countless shows out from Means' debut, Dawson knows this. "We'd like to approach the recording process a little differently this time, take more time with the songs, pay attention to the individual character of each one, [and] experiment with some different sounds," he says of plans for their next full-length. These are good things for a band wanting to rebound from studio sterility. All are embellishments having to do with matters of taste -- something Slender Means has in abundance. "We might do some studio tracking, some home recording, [and] then go back into a studio to mix," Dawson adds, betting that various audio fidelities will combine for a more dynamic sound.
Wisely, Dawson is leaning more on his band mates (Sonny Votolato, guitar; Paul Pugliese, bass; David E. Martin, keys; Eric Wennberg, drums) to help shoulder this prospective diversification. "The writing process is a little different this time, in that none of the songs were written before the band got together, which was the case with Neon & amp; Ruin. The new songs evolved with everyone else's input." Hopefully, this will make use of SM's stage chemistry, a magic Dawson says springs from band members' willingness to play with and not over each other.
Their songs begin with completed drafts manufactured in Dawson's house. Dawson is first of all a solo songwriter -- none of Slender Means' songs, new or old, germinated from jam sessions. So where does he get his ideas?
"I think Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is completely brilliant, lyrically and musically. I've been listening to it quite a bit. Amy Blaschke's new project, Night Canopy, will be releasing their first album this March. She has written some absolutely beautiful songs and has a lovely voice. Both of these records people will be listening to for a long time."
Slender Means' music also has a sturdy, durable quality, something that should age well. Asked which other artists he admires for this trait, Dawson cites Neil Young alongside an audible touchstone: "I'm fairly obsessed with the Kinks these days, who not only have stood the test of time, but also have multiple phases in their career of which most people are unaware."
Commenting on his own band's aversion to rote sentimentality, Dawson states, "All of these songwriters can write sad songs without being fussy or whiny. It is difficult to write a song that is fundamentally sad, in which life is approached with some irony or joy in spite of it, and have the whole thing be convincing and feel right."
It's a trick he's been mastering, having nailed it on Neon & amp; Ruin's standout, "Painless Life." "God bless the scientists redefining happiness as a 12-hour release tablet," sings Dawson, sliding through the words in his brilliant tenor.
A truer vocal tone couldn't be found for the band, as Dawson comfortably cuts right through sarcasm into half-smiling resignation. His glorification of glimmers in bleakness incorporates a tender, depressing realism absent from so much mindless diversion. In "Are You Happy Now?" Dawson aims just above the emotional poverty line, dissatisfied with "slender means and purposeless ingestion of superfluous medications for the heartsick," before crooning in a level glide, "Are you happy now? Are you happy now?" The rhetorical answer is a resounding "No," but suggests less an absence of joy than disdain for commercial "happiness" sold in ads, TV shows and movies.
About to release a four-track EP with Esoterik Records, Slender Means will finish its second LP hopefully for release by summer on Mount Fuji. Until then, they'll play as many shows as possible, including playing for "hopefully more than 10 people" at SXSW. Their first album -- even shy of capturing the band at its best -- blew most of Seattle out of the water, and with so much new material in the works, 2007 should be a pivotal year for Slender Means.
Slender Means with Rocky Votolato and the Night Fly at the Big Dipper on Thursday, March 8, at 8 pm. Tickets: $8; $10, at the door. Call 747-8036.