Do you remember Carnivàle - the creepy and surreal, yet sensual HBO series about a roving band of sideshow performers in the American dustbowl? Imagine that that show was made into a Broadway musical. Now, imagine that Jack White, David Lynch, Jello Biafra, Crispin Glover and Tim Burton all collaborated to write the score for this play, based on the writings of Syd Barrett. That will give you a rough idea of my first impression of Pop Goes the Evil's new album Love Stained Heart.
To put it another way - I have absolutely no idea where to begin with this review. There is so much going on in this album that it's like trying to nail green Jell-O to a tree.
Love Stained Heart was recorded and mixed by Eric Cronstein at Oranjudio Recording in Columbus. Cronstein and the band worked together to complete the final production, and the mastering was done by Joseph Skinner. In production as well as in performance and songwriting, Love Stained Heart is superior to the band's 2013 album White Cream Soda. This gives credence to the fact that the band is 'coming into their own;' growing more confident taking bold steps to craft the album they want to make.
Beginning with vocals, (why not?), the album opens with the song "Don't Cry" in which you are introduced to a somber yet resounding barbershop quartet of a capella harmony in a minor key. On my first listen, this was an engaging a prelude as when The Beatles dropped "Because" into side 2 of Abbey Road to kick off their legendary medley. Pop Goes the Evil, in terms of vocal harmony and basic singing ability have a tremendous range and a broad scope of ability. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but the first time you hear lead singer Lucas Frazier belt it out in the middle of the song "Eat Your Heart Out", you'll know what I mean when you hear it - you'll have found your 'I need to hear that again' moment.
Related to the vocals, I'd like to move on to the lyrics on Love Stained Heart. In short, nothing - absolutely nothing - is taboo to Frazier when it come to subject matter. Religion, death, sex -- especially sex - beauty, pain, power -- they all have a role to play in the language and lyrics of the album; poetry that is written in a rhyme-scheme like a perverted Dr. Seuss book.
Come and meet my inner child,
Bloody socks from trampled smiles.
Laughs at all I've got in vain,
But in the end we carry the same name.
My right brain's been alive,
For quite some time and feeling fine.
It always keeps death on my mind,
With every question answered - die-die-die!
I was supposed to write something important here.
I was supposed to write something about love here.
I was supposed to write something happy here.
But I couldn't, and I cant.
Musically, there is still so much more to swallow with this album. Each track can stand alone with its own unique sound and style; yet as a collective, they all fit together nicely in the theatrical jigsaw puzzle that is Love Stained Heart.
Jacob Grove on drums can provide a slinky, jazzy backdrop with just a hint of a funky groove; or he can just plain pound it out - whatever is needed to keep the dynamism of Love Stained Heart constantly moving forward.
In songs like "Saved" and "Til You're No More," bassist Evan Roberts displays a great deal of playing skill and performs the role that is essential for a bass player to master - especially in a 3-piece band - that of the conduit between rhythm and melody.
Love Stained Heart leaves little doubt that Lucas Frazier is the heart and soul of Pop Goes the Evil. When his offbeat and disturbing lyrics aren't shining in the spotlight, his equally avant-garde guitar playing is. There are many passages in the album where the guitar stands boldly alone and often without effects. Sometimes the entire song structure is held together by the thinnest thread of a solitary note. At other times, Frazier's guitar sound is digitally expanded to include full octave shifts, which gives it a much fuller and sometimes more synthetic, orchestral sound. And then, yet again, like in the song "Time For Bed," the tone is twisted, shifted and warped until it resembles a calliope played in hell.
I traditionally will pick a song each week that I deem the 'best of' from each album. But, in the case of Love Stained Heart, that is quite difficult to do. As I stated before, each song has the merit to be taken individually, but to really get into the spirit of the complete experience, the album really should be consumed as a whole. It has the feeling of a 'concept album' without really trying to be one. If I had to find one song to choose to represent the rest - just one song to try to explain Love Stained Heart - I would probably pick "Eat Your Heart Out" because it is bawdy, flirtatious and the music is downright infectious and groovy.
I will offer this caveat to anyone approaching Love Stained Heart for the first time: before I wrote this piece, I had listened to the album, from beginning to end, probably four or five times. Each time I picked up on a new, strange little nuance that I hadn't noticed before. So please don't make your assessment of the album, or the band, after just one - or even two - listens. Spend some time with this album. Get to know it and, I suspect that soon, like me, you'll find these songs stuck in your head.
"Babylon" by Jeff Beal from the Carnivàle soundtrack