Hailing from Belgium, Dead Man Ray are a very different prospect from City Slang’s other two fine bands, Lambchop and Calexico. They’re still stepped in the influences of Americana – the album was recorded in Chicago and was named after the local’s nickname for the city – but instead of whispering country or Mexican instrumentals, this band deal more in straightforward rock.
Steve Albini dons the producer’s hat for Cago but if you’ve heard his work with Pixies or Nirvana be prepared for a surprise. It’s still a noise fest, but this is probably Albini’s most accessible record yet. In fact, in parts it sounds like no lesser a band than U2 – albeit after Bono and the boys decided to some serious experimentation.
Opening track Landslide gives a pretty good impression of what to expect – it starts off sounding for all the world like The Wedding Present (another former Albini band) and chugs along nicely for three minutes before changing the tempo and accelerating off into a different song. It’s unpredictable and quite thrilling.
This surprising nature continues all the way through the record, ranging from the lyrics (“handicaps are cool if you learn how to exploit them”) to a startling track called Blue Volkswagen 10.10am. This wraps a Bach melody round some spoken word by Chicago poet Ken Nordine, who intones his words in a wonderfully gravelly voice. It’s reminiscent of the classic Robbie Robertson track Somewhere Down The Crazy River, and shares that track’s sense of mystery.
As good as Blue Volkswagen 10.10am is, it doesn’t outshine the best track on the album, A Single Thing. It starts off all maudlin and melancholy, like the best of the Tindersticks, before building up into a majestically tear-jerking chorus. The refrain of “if you’d learn to love me, and I learn to like you” will haunt your head for hours afterwards.
Dead Man Ray are the type of band with ‘word of mouth success’ written all over them. Their songs aren’t commercial enough to be played on mainstream radio (although evening shows will lap them up), but once you’ve heard them, you want to tell all your friends. It isn’t easy listening by any means, but after a couple of plays the mysterious atmosphere and strange lyrics all make a beautiful type of sense, and you’ll find yourself returning to Cago time and time again.