Indie rockers teach us to say embarrassing stuff without embarrassing ourselves
From belching, primal rockabilly to the lurid excesses of contemporary divas, messy and shameless displays of emotion have long been a cornerstone of pop music
. It gets a lot more complicated (and usually less satisfying) when irony and other self-conscious devices enter the mix, however few things are more off-putting than narcissists pretending they’re too cool to bare their souls, while actually inviting you to thrill to every detached sigh. But, as Jerry Lee Lewis might say, if you’re not listening to tap into someone’s deepest emotions, what’s the damn point?
Craft and polish can still be a significant part of the process. Early Roxy Music (in the Eno days) is a perfect example of how concept-rich high art can be melded with basic rock ‘n’ roll, amplifying, rather than diminishing, the raging passions that shape the songs. In its more modest way, Earlimart’s gently mesmerizing Mentor Tormentor is another. A superficial taste of the California trio's fifth album might lead to suspicions of easy-listening hipster mush, since the sweeping widescreen melodies, the elegant arrangements and Aaron Espinoza’s apologetic vocals could be mistaken for inducements to roll over and go back to sleep. But for those who listen closely, there’s a rich bounty of frustration, disappointment and hurt feelings to explore.
The soul of Mentor Tormentor can be found in the unsaid, the contradictions and the context, rather than on its soothing surface. The album kicks off with the most Roxy Music-leaning song of the bunch: As the dramatic chords of “Fakey Fake” build like a gathering storm, Espinoza croons a queasy little tale of role-playing, describing a relationship where one person victimizes the other, and he also implies that the roles are ultimately interchangeable. Similar scenarios of disconnected lovers create a mood of nagging malcontent throughout the album.
Ariana Murray takes a rare lead vocal on the graceful, wrenching piano lament "Happy Alone," throwing out the cutting question, “Would it be fair to say you’re in love with love?” and wishing she could manage by herself, since this seems to be her fate. Laced with ominous heartbreak strings, “The World” strikes a similarly downcast chord, asking, “The world is all around us, but have you noticed me?” (Alas, it appears the answer is no.) A tug of war between wanting not to care and caring too much erupts in the airy “Don’t Think About Me,” the title of which echoes the old Simple Minds hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” Espinoza murmurs, “Do you ever think about me?” before concluding, “It’s just too bad.”
Before relegating the poor sap to loser purgatory, however, note that there’s usually a strong streak of resentment—even open hostility—lurking in the most pitiful also-ran. Although “The Little Things” finds Espinoza pathetically sighing, "Everyone I Know is running out of love," a curdled, irritable edge creeps into his voice on the breakneck “Everybody Knows Everybody,” where this presumed wimp confesses, “Only wanted revenge, or someone else to offend.” (Best not grab him on the rebound!) He confronts religious bullying in “Just Because,” muttering, “One more smack in the mouth, learn what fear is all about / Open your eyes, find your faith in Jesus Christ.” And the toe-tapping, countryish “Bloody Nose” alludes to shady capers with an unreliable partner who lies and spins tales of “drugs in the morning.”
In the mesmerizing, disturbing dream that is Mentor Tormentor, Espinoza and Murray wrap their sweetly uneasy voices around misty melodies, while the deceptively sophisticated production reinforces the sense of uncertainty. Pretty guitars, pianos and strings come and go, creating a layered wall of sound effects, but it’s hardly a seamless construction. Oddly compelling electronic squiggles and blips are embedded in virtually every track, implying that whatever takes place in the foreground, there’s a contrary undercurrent bubbling underneath. (Danger Mouse employed a similar strategy with his inspired production work on The Good, The Bad & The Queen.) Notes Espinoza near the end of the album, “Nothing makes sense / Nothing is true.”
If Mentor Tormentor is primarily about relationships, it’s also about the failure to communicate, and thus probably not good mixtape material for that new crush. The optimist may insist that all this psychodrama indicates a desire to understand and transcend misery, much as one sees a therapist in search of relief. The less-resilient—those who like to wallow in their sorrows—will likely feel even more depressed, but it’s hard to imagine a lovelier bring-down. Grab a crying towel, and enjoy.