November 1, 2011

Jonah Bromwich may or may not have green hair and a jacket stabbed with safety pins.

Punk is about attitude. More specifically, it’s about an attitude that makes conservatives (political or otherwise) uncomfortable. Wisconsin band Sleeping in the Aviary have always understood that attitude thoroughly and on their new album, You and Me, Ghost they put it into practice in their most innovative fashion yet: combining their signature off-putting creepiness with hooky songs, most of which are about romance.

Sleeping in the Aviary fans are used to cheerfully bizarre cynicism and discordant yet somehow catchy songs. So it’s a bold step for the band to make an album that sounds so rooted in pleasant, everyday experiences. And yet, the band remains far from normal. That’s why their seemingly typical love songs frequently end up with a couple of disturbing or off-putting elements; the love song parts force long-time fans to experience the band in a new way, the weird sounds to freak everyone else out.

Take, “Are You Afraid of Being Poor?” on which a typical romantic build-up enters a sudden awkward phase when singer Elliot Kozel asks his potential soul-mate the title question. It’s sincere and weird and the chorus of “sha la la’s” in the background exaggerates that weirdness.

Elsewhere, upbeat clangers play like drugged up outtakes from the first Fratellis album: opener “Talking out of Turn” is short, loud and explosive, while “On the Way Home,” cheerfully turns dejection into an anthem. Kozel lists off the things he does on the way home after a girl rejects him. She tells him to “help himself to the loneliness,” and he responds by drinking and driving, getting lost, and puking while ripping chords to soundtrack his descent.

You can still hear the band’s inclination for playing with odd sounds on songs like “Love Police,” when occasional distortion in the background makes it sound as if there’s a musically-inclined murderer taking care of business in the studio. While “So Lonely” is a paean to the solitude you can feel even in good company–one that uses a pulsing strobe sound that threatens to cause aural epilepsy.

The most interesting song on the record is an interesting counterpoint to the 2010 ballad, “The Very Next Day I Died.” One of the best songs of last year, “Died” used a tight structure to tell the story of a morbid life which managed to sound depressingly familiar and oddly epic. On You and Me, Ghost, the song “Karen, You’re an Angel” tells a story that spans a similar amount of time but is insanely upbeat, recounting the long-lasting romance of a pair of high school sweethearts. It grapples with the same ideas that Ty Segall addressed on the stellar Goodbye Bread, namely, the comfort and banality of diving into the domesticity of grown-up life. The song is romantic and saccharine sweet, but the couple’s stereotypical life (they have kids, a house in Boulder, they still do the same things they’ve always done) gives the listener pause. It’s well-written, spare and creepily cheerful.

When a band makes this kind of leap, fans frequently accuse them of changing for someone. Luckily, Sleeping in the Aviary are so far away from a scene that developments of this type come across as being entirely organic. And they’ve still got their warped sense of humor (check their appalling website if you doubt it) and their punk sensibilities. With You and Me, Ghost they’ve managed to channel their oddball aesthetic into relatively straightforward pop form. Attitude still comes first, but its seemingly prosaic nature makes the strangeness both more surprising and more insidious. And that’s a good thing.

MP3: Sleeping in the Aviary – “Karen, You’re An Angel”

MP3: Sleeping in the Aviary-“On the Way Home”

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