Another Saturday night, and the last thing Single Mothers frontman Drew Thomson wants to talk about is fucking Henry Miller. Yet, there he is, cornered by comp. lit. majors, prattling on about their vintage typewriters, their well-stocked bookshelves, and—horror of horrors—their theses. “I don’t care about your first editions,” Thomson vents midway through “Marbles”, a highlight among highlights from Single Mothers’ debut LP Negative Qualities, before adding “at least I don’t pretend my whole life’s held together by bookends.”
Kiss-offs, kvetching fits, and a self-awareness Thomson himself deems “crippling”: if nothing else, Negative Qualities is 2014’s most aptly-titled LP. An airing of grievances in full-length form, Negative Qualities takes all comers: from starry-eyed barflies to farmer’s market-shopping Saturn drivers, nobody comes out of Negative Qualities looking too hot. Certainly not Thomson; shortly after he’s blah-blahed his way to the bar through the McSweeney’s-spouting master’s candidates, Thomson’s labeled himself a hypocrite, the kind of part-time shitheel who sees “the power in inflicting pain.” “Tried to fight it, tried to hide it” goes one such self-examination, “but fuck it—I am who I am, and I’m not just gonna change.”
Thomson’s lyrics are at once Single Mothers’ main attraction and—for some listeners—their presumptive sticking point. It’s rare to hear a lyricist lay out all their garbage in quite this fashion without putting a little more narrative distance between themselves and the words on the page. Thomson doesn’t do that, not really; on “Ketamine”—in which he cops to assisted infidelity and dubs himself “good at avoiding things and bleeding into the scenery”—he actually calls himself out by name, leaving little question as to who’s at the center of these songs.
Throughout Negative Qualities, a filter-averse Thomson does not exactly flatter himself; even the grand fuck-you he throws to a presumptive ex-lover on “Money”—oddly enough, the album’s prettiest song—skirts an awfully fine line between cutting and petty. While it’s safe to assume Thomson is exaggerating certain Negative Qualities for effect, spending 26 minutes with Thomson’s dirty laundry can leave one feeling a little unclean. Still, with Negative Qualities spraying insults at anyone who dares get too close, you’re probably not supposed to like Thomson any more than he likes you. Like Nayvadius says, he’s just being honest.
While Thomson rants, Single Mothers rage. That nourish guitar and loud-quiet-loud (well, maybe not “quiet”) dynamics of “Feel Shame” and that atypically anthemic turn on closer “Money” notwithstanding, Single Mothers’ gnarled post-hardcore proves every bit as unrelenting as Thomson’s lyrical bloodshedding. It’s not long on subtlety, but the music is nevertheless compelling, a full-on tantrum rendered in headknock drums and skull-smashing guitar. At times, this onslaught effectively drowns out Thomson’s voice, obscuring the finer points of his fuck-all-ya’ll manifesto in a sea of feedback. But that synergy mostly works; you lean in closer, only to be told to give the dude some space. Thomson’s not a singer, he’s a screamer, and in typically self-deprecating fashion, he’s complained in interviews about a lack of range in his normal register. Still, for a guy who seems to see his larynx as a sparring partner, he gets a surprising amount done with it, sneering and gnashing his way through these songs with an impressively deft balance of sarcasm and self-loathing.
Spending the better part of a half-hour inside Thomson’s head might not be your idea of a good time, and the unflinching—and frequently unflattering—Negative Qualities, while potent, isn’t pretty. But the biggest mark against Negative Qualities isn’t that Thomson’s offering up too much of himself, but that he’s snuck just a little too much of somebody else in there, too: namely, Hold Steady/Lifter Puller frontman Craig Finn. At times, Thomson—by his own admission, a fan—seems to be directly channeling Finn, particularly the chattier, more biting Finn of Fiestas and Fiascos and Almost Killed Me. It’s not just that so many of these songs are either set in bars, or the shitty little apartments you return to when the bars close for the night; several of these songs treat the tavern as a tabernacle (“Bar lights look like halos/ Making all the chicks here look like angels”) or otherwise lift from Finn’s frequent juxtaposition of sensations (“A soft pillow on hard pavement”). It’s a little strange, on a record so firmly embedded in Thomson’s skull, to hear the occasional echo of somebody else’s voice.
Still, where Finn and company of late seem to’ve ceded their spot as poet laureates of the pint-hoisting set to a crop of younger, gutsier bands—opting instead for something more universal, albeit considerably less potent—Single Mothers operate squarely in a very specific headspace: that testy two-beers-too-many space where your better judgment and your baser instincts get a little muddled. “All I want to do is sit here complaining,” Thomson admits, some 40 seconds before “Money”—and Negative Qualities—grinds to a halt. Might wanna save the Henry Miller talk for somebody else.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uNBGRU