Rob Crow is one of California’s wackiest and most talented exports, and that’s no small accomplishment in a state that has given rock the likes of Zappa, Beefheart, and Caroliner, amongst others. Since the late 1980s, he’s been in a multitude of great bands, of which Heavy Vegetable, Thingy, Optiganally Yours, and Pinback are just four. None of them sound alike (okay, maybe the first two I mentioned), but all of them are outlets for the man’s seemingly endless stream of indelible melodies and often-hilarious lyrics about prosaic subjects. Rock critics rightfully go crazy over people like Prince, Bob Pollard, and John Darnielle for churning out great music in bulk, but fail to mention Crow as much as they should. Like most other prolific songwriters, Crow has piles of songs that are too good to throw away yet can’t be easily inserted in the repertoires of already existing outlets. Out of these piles come solo albums like My Room is a Mess, which really should win an award for Most Appropriate Album Title Ever. This album is structured in pretty much the same way one would expect from the private space of a busy, creative person. It’s a disorganized mixture of things that guests are bound to trip over while walking around, some of which they really shouldn’t see, others of which they’ll end up happy that they discovered. It’s a concept that I can definitely relate to.
I’ll discuss the bad stuff first because, to Crow’s credit, there isn’t much of it. There’s the opening track, “Never Alone,” which is a note-perfect imitation of the late-nineties boy-band sound, right down to the lovesick lyrics and elongated “yeah”s and “baby”s. It’s a successful genre experiment, but at thirty-seven seconds, it’s also mercifully short. In my room, “Never Alone” would be that picture of an ex-girlfriend that I forgot to throw away the last time I looked through my pictures. Then, there’s “Jedi Outcast,” which is Crow’s attempt at black metal, right down to the de-tuned guitars, blast beats, and Cookie Monster growling. It would actually rock if it weren’t for the fact that all the drums are programmed, as well as the fact that THE SONG IS CALLED “JEDI OUTCAST.” In my room, this song would be like the mask I wore on my face the last time I took my role-playing way too seriously during a game of Dungeons and Dragons. There’s “Finger,” a minute-long snippet of choppy acoustic guitar noodling that sounds like a Gastr del Sol out-take. In my room, this song would be the book on semiotics that I never read, but prominently displayed in my library whenever I wanted to impress pretentious chicks. Last but not least, there’s the couple seconds of nauseatingly dissonant guitar chords that interrupt the otherwise excellent “Catching the Top.” In my room, those few seconds would be like the gross stain on my favorite outfit, which I forgot to put it in the hamper before my most recent trip to the laundry.
This leaves fourteen other songs on My Room is a Mess, all of which are somewhere between pretty good and absolutely brilliant. “Last Bus from the Che” is narrated from the point of view of a man watching a band play live, torn between leaving the club in time for the last bus home and staying for the rest of the set. The song gains intensity by changing keys frequently to mirror Crow’s argument with himself: “I’ll leave, alright, I’ll go…even though they haven’t played my favorite song yet.” “Helicopter” finds Crow raging against the song’s namesake as it hovers over his apartment and disturbs his sleep. Its stentorian harmonies and cheesy keyboards bring to mind early They Might Be Giants. In “Kill All the Humans,” Crow chides himself for being a “robot,” unable to even cry as a release for his all-consuming anger. “When You Lie” begins as a mellow acoustic screed against organized religion and superstition in general: “From Jesus down to Santa, you’re still lying to your kids…don’t believe them!” The song gains an almost orchestral grandeur once the programmed drums and electric guitars kick in. The booming drums in “Overtime” nearly drown out Crow’s vocals, save for a chant urging listeners to miss work, sleep late, and daydream about killing their bosses.My Room is a Mess ends with “A Subtle Kiss,” a love song with a breezy groove that’s almost the polar opposite of “Never Alone” in terms of quality and…um, subtlety! In my room, these songs would be the awesome CDs that I hadn’t heard in years until a guest pulled them out from under the couch. They would be the scraps of paper with phone numbers of people that I really like to hang out with written on them. I’m sure you all get the point by now.
Throughout the album, Crow proves himself as a superb vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter, layering harmonies and guitars on top of each other with a skill that most bedroom musicians don’t even approach. The obvious genre experiments aside, there isn’t much on this record that’s strikingly different from any of Crow’s already established bands. However, you can still see why these songs had to be reserved for a solo record. They’re not as musically complex or lyrically funny as the average Thingy or Heavy Vegetable song. They aren’t as melancholy and laconic as the average Pinback song. Last but not least, they’re not as bouncy and gimmicky as an Optiganally Yours song. These aren’t complaints by any means, for most of these songs stand alone quite well. Listening to an album like My Room is a Mess would be a humbling experience for anyone with writer’s block. You’ve got to hand it to a man if even his castaways sound better than most people’s strongest efforts. His room might be a mess, but you’ll definitely want to pay another visit soon after leaving. Speaking of such, does anyone have a vacuum cleaner I can borrow?