Absentee make the kind of wonderful sound that recalls Jonathan Richman after he’s hit rock bottom, lived as an alcohol-soaked tramp in a concrete jungle for a decade and somehow stumbled back into a recording studio to find it filled with endless Jack Daniels, a gold-plated recording contract and all his ex-girlfriends.
Dan Michaelson’s deep baritone sets the scene for irony-tinged romance as the band serve up their second album of failed romance and broken hearts, juxtaposed with the sweetness of Melinda Bronstein’s vocal delivery, vibraphone and melodica.
The tunes are sing-song, pure pop in places, alt.folk melancholy in others, so much so that it’s difficult to tell whether lyrics such as those you find on the shotgun-wedding tale They Do It These Days are faux optimism or desperately naive. But herein lies Absentee’s charm: there’s a sense that they know everything is doomed to hell, but that’s not going to stop them from trying.
It takes a special kind of world-weariness to sound as wrecked as Michaelson manages on Love Has Had Its Way and We Smash Plates without making the listener want to hand him a loaded gun and encourage him to get on with using it, and if you’ve got any soul you’ll love him for it. Only Smog, if anyone, can sound so melancholy and so in need of a hug in the same verse.
Absentee can rock out as well, as Bitchstealer shows to great effect, backed by ’80s-style do-do-woos and a chorus Roxy Music would be proud of. Pips is just as energetic.
In fact, the album is full of songs you just know (and wish) would be radio-friendly unit shifters if only some ghettos of the music industry didn’t take themselves so damn seriously. There’s too much fun in what Absentee are doing for you to truly believe their songs are as dark as we know they are and somehow the world seems to distrust them a little for that.
It’s about time Dan and his pals were recognised for the musical geniuses they are. Like the Magic Numbers if someone had spent a year or two mentally and physically breaking them, or Isabel Campbell and Mark Lanegan without a history of genre-defining bands behind them, they straddle the misery-twee divide with a divine grace and instruments that belong in a nursery school music room.
Victory Shorts is the perfect addition to their oeuvre, building on 2006’s Schmotime with the same irreverence and deep-seated emotion that turns a good record into a great one. As second albums go it cements their position without retreading old ground or diverting too far away from their roots – a Victory indeed.