Deathray Davies

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Let’s get one thing straight – I don’t like the term “indie rock”, first because it’s a useless label as a genre, and secondly because I hate the self-congratulatory tone that comes with it, as though everything that comes out of a major label is automatically commercial garbage and that everything on an independent label is "from the heart" and "for the love of the music". Since genres are supposed to be used to describe what the music itself actually sounds like, I really find myself having no idea what “indie rock” is supposed to be. I’d say it’s generally lo-fi and unpolished with basic guitar/bass/drum set ups, but most bands classified as “indie” sound professional and use all sorts of instrumental flourishes. I’m so un-hip that I actually had to Wikipedia the term to see if I was missing the meaning. What I got was this – “A variety of musical genres and subgenres with varying degrees of overlap are associated with indie rock. Some of these include lo-fi, post-rock, sadcore, C86, math rock, shoegaze/dream pop, indie pop, noise rock, noise pop, riot grrrl, post-hardcore, twee pop, alt-country, post-punk revival, garage rock revival, dance-punk, indie folk, baroque pop, new prog, and indietronica.” Wait, no baroque punk? Or alt-shoegaze? Or post-pop revival?

That said, the Deathray Davies are an indie rock band, which I guess means they write and play all their own material and are on a label that nobody’s heard of, and is probably run by the band themselves. The band is led by a guy named John Dufilho, who is a jack-of-all-trades type musician, handling guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and keys at various points, especially during their first two albums, where Dufilho more or less WAS the band. At some point DRD started to play live gigs, which forced Dufilho to form a full group, which from then on became the studio band.

Sound-wise, this group does sound an awful lot like many 90’s alt-rock bands I could name, but there’s a clear throwback to the 60’s, in particular 60’s pop like the Monkees and the Kinks (as their name implies). The songs are mostly 3- or 4-chorders and largely hook-driven with a straightforward garage rock sound. In general I’d say this is a good band and that Dufilho has a clear (if limited) knack for songwriting. You can see this guy becoming a star if he was born 30 years earlier, as he definitely knows his way around a good hook. If anything sets this group apart from the rest, it’s the heavy reliance on oscillating fuzz guitar, particularly in the later releases. Dufilho also seems fond of buzzing organ and synthesizer sounds. Vocal-wise, he's okay, as he only really sings in sort of a monotone drawl and can come across as fairly limited. But hey, Ray Davies isn’t much better. His voice is what I’d call “replacement level” (in baseball terms) – you wouldn’t mind him singing for your band, but only until someone better comes along, and you certainly wouldn’t want anyone worse. I cannot imagine this guy singing in any other type of band – his voice has little power or emotion, but I can’t deny his ability to carry a tune. I think this limitation is something Dufilho is aware of, which is why typically the vocals are never the focal point of their songs. In fact, sometimes they are buried beneath the music entirely, which makes me wonder if he's embarrassed of his singing. Lyrically, he’s strangely poetic, and although his lyricisms can sometimes have that “shit from an old notebook” quality, they’re often interesting and quotable. It’s mostly downbeat stuff – subjects include lost love, depression, bitterness, death by drowning, death by being buried alive, death by falling out of a plane, etc. Not exactly life-affirming stuff, but not as obnoxious as it sounds. I find it most interesting the way he writes lyrics in “paragraph form”, not really bothering to rhyme or even write lyrics that are coherent without looking at the lyric sheet first. And looking at the lyric sheet gives you no indication of how the song is actually sung. So the lyrics will often consist of four or five sentences, and the lines he sings don’t really end at the end of a sentence or phrase. Thus, you get lots of lines like “They line up/to look inside/I don’t know who they’re looking for I want to/smile to just say hi”. He’s also fond of titling songs things that don’t appear anywhere in the actual song.

The Deathray Davies are one of those groups you hope finds commercial success someday, as they tend to embody a lot of the things I like about modern rock – it’s hook driven, plenty singable, efficient and not overindulgent (practically no solos), and they have an edge. They embody a lot of what made Weezer’s Blue Album a 90’s classic. That said, they haven’t had any sort of hit – it may be due to not having the right connections or perhaps because of Dufilho’s limited voice, but it certainly isn’t because of the material. It’s this lack of success that pretty much keeps them in Texas instead of touring in a place where I can see them. So let’s talk about the albums:

Drink With the Grown-ups and Listen to the Jazz (1999)
When I was in high school, I took a class in theatre, and during that class we had to read the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” There is a line in that play about going to a gin mill to “drink with the grown-ups and listen to the jazz”, and immediately I got excited – “hey, that’s the name of the first Deathray Davies album!” Not that anyone would really know who that was, but there was a certain sense of excitement with the knowledge that I was now part of a small subset of a very small group of people who actually bought this record that knew where the title came from. Is John Dufilho a big fan of the play? Did he just choose a random passage from it in order to find a cool title? Do lots of bands do this? Those questions raced through my mind all through 4th period…

I apologize for the barely relevant personal anecdote; but this is how you review Indie bands, right, Pitchfork? Anyway, this is Dufilho’s first album, and it’s basically what you’d expect from a self-released debut – lo-fi with somewhat uneven production (the bass levels jump all over the place), and fairly mediocre instrumental talent, which is understandable as Dufilho plays all the instruments himself. Luckily, he shows a pretty developed knack for songwriting early on, writing a number mini power-pop gems (“Set to Stun”, “Strongest Man in the World”, “I Color Outside the Lines”), and a few surprisingly effective emotional dirges (“Alarm Clock”, “Drizzle”). Overall the album is little more than a fun pop album, albeit one with a couple of should-have-been classics – the melancholy and dreamy “Elephants” gets a lot of mileage off a lullaby-like guitar riff and a bouncy melody, and “They Stuck Me In a Box in a Ground Part 2” is a catchy rock tune that Ray Davies himself would be proud of. Where’s the downside? A number of tunes seem just unfinished – a couple have “placeholder” choruses (“The Deathray Davies Set the Original Tone”, “Divine Sarcasm”), and the only boring track on here happens to be the longest (“Enjoy the New Planet”). But it’s still a fine record, and those who enjoy their other albums will find something to like here.

Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist (2000)
Dufilho again plays all the instruments, but it’s a much more confident-sounding album, with noticeable improvements in production, mixing, and songwriting. Fundamentally, it’s not much different from the last album, except it’s more of a rock record, with big guitar riffs taking center stage. John pilfers riffs from throughout rock history, recalling the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” (“Jack Never Crashes”), Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” (“Evaporated”), and the sound of tuning his guitar (“How to Tune a Guitar – let’s face it, every guitar player has thought of this idea). The songwriting is fuller, if a tad less fun than the last record, and even if the riffs aren’t original, the knack for songcraft shines through. He’s also clever – there’s a pounding, bluesy song about a restaurant, which doesn’t make much sense until you read the title (“I Put Opium in the Food”). Likewise, there’s a great song about drinking yourself into depression every night that’s named “Corrective Lenses”. But towards the end of the album, that cleverness starts to turn on him – half-song “Deer in the Headlights” has a prolonged blank spot in the middle, “I Killed Mr. Red” is hardly a song at all. Fortunately, Dufilho saves one of the best for last – “Chinese Checkers and Devo Records” is a radio-ready pop tune with a memorable riff that would have been a big hit had it come out in 1969. He certainly does show flashes of songwriting brilliance (“Corrective Lenses”, “Jack Never Crashes”), and the album’s quality level never really tapers off much – even the tracks that should be filler come off as oddly endearing (“I Never Thought Today Would Be So Strange”). Solid work.

The Day of the Ray (2002)
Sometimes it’s easy to draw parallels between certain albums; in this case, The Day of the Ray reminds me a lot of XTC’s Black Sea. I can draw a lot of comparisons but here’s the important one: both groups were power pop outfits that had been good but somewhat inconsistent on record despite drawing rave reviews for their live shows, so both these records were made as an attempt to deliver something that was as close as possible to the live experience. XTC turned everything up and pumped up the tempos; for the Davies’, the answer was even simpler – just bring the live band to the studio. You can tell immediately from the opening seconds that Dufilho and his new crew are out to make a loud, riff-heavy, catchy-as-sin rock album. The now 6-piece rock band delivers, subscribing to the “say what you want to say and get out” philosophy that keeps crunchy riff-rockers like “Persuasive is Your Name” to a surprisingly short two minute running time. It’s great to see what he can do in such a short amount of time, given that the songs are generally ramped up in complexity and have more sections than usual (“I’m From the Future”, “She Can Play Me Like a Drum Machine”). John’s lyrical wit has sharpened quite a bit (“talkin’ to you is like pulling teeth/it might do some good, but God it’s painful”), even if the band sometimes drowns him out (“Her First Party”). The record is too fast-paced to really name many highlights, but the one extended cut did deserve serious radio airplay (“The Medication’s Gone”), boasting an immediately catchy riff and memorable chorus. Again, things start to get worrisome in the second half, as Dufilho still has a tendency to include half-finished songs (“Spinecracker”, “Starting to Stop”), but it finishes admirably, with a bouncy power pop gem (“They Stuck Me In a Box In the Ground Part 4”) and a surprisingly touching and neatly-arranged acoustic ballad (“It’s Hard to Walk Uphill on Stilts”), followed by an old fashioned riff-rocker as an encore (“There’s Too Much Ulterior in Your Motive”). All this and I haven’t even mentioned “Don’t Point at the Stoners”, which manages to be not only catchy but lyrically brilliant despite running a mere 1:19. I suppose I’m not doing any favors by mentioning nearly every song on the album, so if you want the condensed review, here it is – “fast-paced power pop album with a raw and crunchy live sound”. I recommend it.

Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory (2003)
This is not exactly a ‘concept album’, but there are some shared themes here and there, including a four-time repeated musical phrase (in the form of three short instrumentals and one fully-fledged pop song), and a more experimental batch of tunes, so let’s just call it a bid for longevity. Every instrument you’ve ever heard on a DRD album appears here, including violins, trumpet, organ, drum machines, glockenspiel, and lots and lots of fuzz guitar on nearly every track. It’s mostly a success, but it’s inconsistent – all told, there’s about 26 minutes of worthwhile material on this album, and the rest is more or less disposable. But they’re a great 26 minutes – Dufilho and crew start experimenting with interesting song concepts and instrumentation, with the best song constructed mostly of an overwhelming drum machine loop and a short keyboard part (“The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower”). Yet it’s produced brilliantly, with guitar relegated to the background and enough noise to nearly drown out Dufilho, who provides Beatles-style harmonies and clever lyrics (maybe even autobiographical – as it’s about a singer who believes he can only capture a woman’s heart if she doesn’t hear him sing). There are plenty more highlights – “I Was That Masked Man” features a great, heartbreaking fuzz guitar riff, horn parts, and crashing drums that dominate the song and pack a lot of emotion into a short running time. “I Regret the Day I Tried to Steal Daniel’s Ego” is another potential single, a straight-up, Day of the Ray-style rocker that features more hooks than anything from that album. And the more delicate songs are a success too – “Low and Silent” is troubling, insecure and nearly haunting, and the acoustic “Dominique” is as sweet and upbeat as a good love song should be.

So what’s the problem? Every Deathray Davies album has its share of B-material, but in the past Dufilho was always smart and kept it short – not so here, where the two longest songs are either unfinished and never take off (“Gone Against the Tide”) or too minimalist to be affecting (the title track), plus the plodding “Box Part 5” doesn’t match up to the rest in the series (again, there’s a great riff there. Maybe you see a running theme). There are still some gems towards the end – there’s a great tune called “How to Win at Roulette” that shows the group thinking outside the box in a good way, and the hidden track (“You Shine Like the Sun”) is a much-needed simple rock song. All this could have made for a great album, but it would still need a couple more great songs. But you still get to hear the band branch out a bit and prove that they’re more than just a 60’s rock n’ roll riff machine.

The Kick and the Snare (2005)
I’m starting to think that the Deathray Davies will probably never have the commercial breakthrough they deserve, because this is their 5th release of listener-friendly pop-rock tunes, yet they still remain an obscurity outside of Dallas. It’s another good effort, without any real surprises, more in line with Day of the Ray than Midnight. The good news – it’s their best produced album yet, with plenty of clean riffing and a pop-friendly sheen, and even Dufilho seems more confident in using his voice to lead a song. The bad – it’s also their shortest, clocking in at less than 40 minutes even with the blank space on the last track. The group goes back to the garage rock well here, drawing out a number of sweet and low-key pop songs (“Stumble”, “In Circles”) to compliment the more straightforward rockers (“Clock in Now”, the two “Box” tracks). This really could have been a breakthrough – opener “The Fall Fashions” is awesome, with an amazing horn line punching through the main melody, and the nearly pop-punk sounding “Plan to Stay Awake” almost invokes a New Wave-type vibe with speed singing, and lyrically it may be one of Dufilho’s best. Otherwise, you get the same things you can get on any DRD record – addictive power pop (“They Stuck Me in a Box in the Ground Part 7”), simple, Who-inspired 4-chorders (“A Calendar Crime”), and an off-beat song with an interesting concept (“Chainsaw”). It even recalls previous albums at times – “Alaska” is basically a sped-up “Chinese Checkers and Devo Records” with more buzz. It is a little short and doesn’t have as many standouts as I’d like, but it does leave me wishing it was longer and wanting to hear the best tracks again, which is what a good album should do. If nothing else, try to find a download of “The Fall Fashions” – it’s the song of Summer ’05, even if nobody heard it.

After the release of this record, John took a hiatus to perform as the drummer of the Apples in Stereo. Though he took off quite a long time, apparently they’re coming back some time in 2012. The day of the ray may finally be upon us…?

To be continued…