Manhattan Murder Mystery is a rock band. Matt writes songs and plays guitar. Laura plays drums. Katya and Gibbons play bass. Todd plays guitar. Mateo plays keyboards. They live in Los Angeles. They are a great band.
Matthew Teardrop doesn't care much for Bob Dylan. The Manhattan Murder Mystery frontman has publicly suggested that Hisao Shinagawa is the superior artist. I don't know Shinagawa's work, so I can't speak to that. But Teardrop has also confessed that he prefers Warren Zevon. This opinion, while daft, is marginally defensible.
As a rather fierce partisan, I'm inclined to denounce anyone who minimizes Dylan's centrality to everything that's good about rock and roll. But Teardrop is something of a visionary himself--as he amply demonstrates on his band's self-titled LP--so I feel compelled to take his contentions seriously.
Manhattan Murder Mystery's recent music inhabits a world where Dylan's Rimbaud years never happened, a world where poetry (both decent and godawful) has not become the default aspiration for rock and roll lyrics, a world where you have to have something to say--be it banal or profound--and you can't hide your vacuity behind abstraction.
Zevon built a cozy space for himself within this world. Eschewing the type of reverie that Dylan perfected in the sixties, Zevon was a yarn-spinner and a confessionalist. Whereas Dylan conveyed his drug-fueled exhaustion through Blonde on Blonde's menagerie of psychotic images, Zevon simply stated: "And I'm all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town."
Which mode of expression you prefer is irrelevant. One isn't inherently better than the other. The Dylan mode speaks to a certain region of the brain, the Zevon mode to another. (And I am of course aware that, over the years, Dylan has periodically operated in the Zevon mode and Zevon had his dalliances in the Dylan mode. But let's not be pedantic.)
Anyway, I'd like to suggest that Manhattan Murder Mystery operates in the Zevon mode every bit as well as Zevon himself. From a strictly personal point of view, I'd contend that they do it better.
But, nonetheless, they are in Zevon's wheelhouse. Confessions of despair and alienation, unlikely folk heroes, darkly comic tales of violence and intoxication: they're all accounted for within Manhattan Murder Mystery's 35 minutes.
Forced dichotomies aside, Teardrop is at heart a folk singer. More specifically, he is a protest singer. But, rather than political or social injustice, his outrage falls on existential injustice. He points his finger at fathers who judge their sons based on how well they can take a punch ("Trailer Trash"); at religiously insane parents who silence their children by locking them in the closet ("I Always Think About Dying"); at a world where following the rules and attaining material success is a barren absurdity, but the alternative ain't much better ("Honda Prius"); at loneliness, and the grating, mundane horror of life (damn near every song).
And, much like his forebears through the centuries, Teardrop does it all in the piercing vernacular of the everyday. In a recent interview, he said he no longer tries to write poetry, and that, in a song like "Smoky Mountain", "there's no analogies or anything to figure out."
While it's true that "Smoky Mountain" will likely never be taught in a university setting, its power transcends metaphor and traditionally poetic forms of language. Out of context, lines like, "Oh everyone makes mistakes all the time / Lord knows, I've made mine," and, "And tonight / I've got my lines memorized / I'm going to take you by surprise," sound a bit stale, a bit hoary. However, in context--surrounded by aching details, delivered with startling conviction--they comprise some of the most stirring and moving and delirious moments you'll ever hear on record.
If it's not poetry, it's something just as good.
Yes, yes. But how does it sound?
I know this question has nagged at more than a few devotees of Manhattan Murder Mystery's live show. The intensity of feeling conveyed by the band in person feels untranslatable--it's not something that can be replicated via iPod or stereo.
But, I'm pleased to discover, this record comes as close as anyone could reasonably expect. The renditions of live favorites like "Parking Lot" and "Ambulance" contain as much unhinged rapture as a pair of speakers can handle. I have no doubt that it was recorded with an army helmet firmly in place.
And, much like the band's live show, at the end of this brilliant album--a gem of subversive simplicity and drunken prophecy--the only appropriate action is to drop whatever you're holding and run like hell.
Where? Who knows. Doesn't matter.