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Thursday, May 11, 2006
Less Famous Than You - Songs by Corey Dargel
This month marks the release of Corey Dargel's Less Famous Than You. If that sentence triggered deja vu, well, it probably should. Dargel's been performing the songs on the disc in various incarnations and various venues for several months now. The music and his artsongwriters manifesto have been drumming up a steady stream of internet and paper-media chatter. While plenty of the relevant words have been of praise, a fair share have also been of controversy. The basic question has been one of genre: are these art songs, pop songs, art pop songs, pop art songs? If that's your concern, this is the wrong review for you - get busy on Google and you'll find plenty of ammo for any conclusion (including some previously written by me). No, for the purposes of this review, the songs of Less Famous Than You shall be treated simply as songs.

Appropriately enough then, listening to LFTY is all about the defining element of song - voice, both literary and sonic. In adherence to his artsongwriters principles, all the lyrics are written by Dargel, and according to the website, they’re “about falling in love with famous (or semi-famous) people.” The theme’s apparentness wavers from song to song, but the thrills and neuroses implied by it are omnipresent. A few of the songs, like “Global World View” and “Every Word Means So Much to Me,” take the celeb-crush approach, but more often Dargel explores such relationships from a more intimate perspective.

Fortunately, Dargel thoroughly diffuses the potential triteness of a steady stream of love-related songs. For starters, disenchantment easily outweighs infatuation here; there’s no “baby, I love you” here, just “baby, please put down the knife.” Second, Dargel’s writing maintains a wry sense of humor throughout. In a few songs wittiness grabs the reins (for example, “Gay Cowboys” – which has a lot less in common with a certain movie than you’d expect from the title). But for the most part, the humor just gently deflects the issue at hand – kinda like the joke a friend might have ready whenever you mention her ex.

However, the most effective way Dargel keeps sentimentality at bay is through his vocal delivery. Each song is sung clearly, calmy, almost wearily. No word is mumbled; no phrase is rushed; no line is scuffed with inflection. As a result, though the songs are uniformly in the first person, a sense of narration emerges and the listener is forced to, well, listen to the words instead of just feeling them.

Of course, most songs involve a little more than a voice, and the songs here certainly do too. The combination of Dargel's distinctive singing style and the worthwhile words tends to obscure it, but the accompaniment on LFTY should not be ignored. The most successful songs on the album, in fact, are the ones in which the accompaniment subtly works at cross-purposes to the rest of the song.

The second track, "I'll Drown," provides a perfect example. Here Dargel's thalassophobic protagonist bemoans his inability to join his lover on a cruise. “Since when does disability equal a lack of devotion/Since when does tranquility include a risk I’ll drown” the refrain resignedly asks. And for the first couple listens, resignation is exactly what the song expresses. But as the song becomes more familiar, the accompaniment begins to suggest more. The drums kick along a little faster than expected; countermelodies compete with the vocal line; rhythms skitter more than bounce ; background singers enter unpredictably (in particular, listen to what happens on the word “rent” in the last verse).

It all coalesces to form a rich subtext underneath Dargel’s voice. The markers of emotion that Dargel has removed from his delivery find refuge in the accompaniment. The psychological and emotional tensions of the situation described in the text lie present, but slightly obscured beneath the calmness of the sung surface. Compared to the theatrics that accompany most love songs, it sounds a lot closer to how people really act, doesn’t it?

You can get the music now digitally at iTunes and soon physically at Darla. Or, if you want to see if Dargel can keep this cool live, wait until May 22.


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