August 24, 2003

Herman Dune "Mash Concrete Metal Mushroom"

This album begins with a mundane answering machine message from a person who I assume must be a friend of the band. It’s the perfect opening for an album that sounds like the best bits of a quiet, late-night jam session from a group of talented yet underachieving buddies. French singer-songwriter Herman Dune and his band gets by with an almost Velvet Underground simplicity in two ways. One is their uncomplicated instrumental setup: two guitars, minimal, unassertive drums, and bass whenever someone feels like playing bass, I guess. The other reason is their insistence on using no more than four chords in any of their songs. The most striking feature of their sound is the extremely nimble guitar playing. If this album were completely instrumental, one could fall asleep listening to the gorgeous fingerpicked and slide guitars dance around each other in almost every song.

Of course, there are vocals, but that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes the harmonies are sublime, some examples being “On the Knick” and “Not That Big a Story.” At other times, they sound like a drunken campfire sing-along gone awry. The most grating example is “Monkey Song,” in which the lead singer’s horribly off-key vocals are mixed excruciatingly loud. It doesn’t help that the lyrics seem like they were written for Michael Jackson to sing: “If some of my friends could be monkeys,” the chorus insists, “they would have four hands and understand me.” Fortunately, the lyrics aren’t always that infantile. Most of them revolve around standard singer-songwriter concerns such as road trips, drugs, and on the album’s best songs, women.

“Not That Big a Story” finds Dune shallowly admiring a woman’s beauty and not much more: “Spread your shoulders/Untie your hair/Give me a picture/The rest, I don’t care.” “Why Would That Hurt (If You Never Loved Me?)” lives up to its lengthy title by turning its verses into interminable run-on sentences: “I’m not the kind of guy who leaves marks on a girl’s hearts and make them cry at night and hold their teddy bears tight --- the ones they kept in a box in case the people they loved would go away (like ten thousand miles) --- and drive with another girl riding shotgun, listening to the tape you made --- they wouldn’t even care, and instead they’d put the radio on and listen to Alanis Morissette.” Those two are the album’s funniest and catchiest songs. There’s also “Metal Mash,” which is neither funny nor catchy, but the shambling percussion and minor-key strumming create a foreboding atmosphere that suits Dune’s warbling about wanting to die in a plane crash extremely well. It’s also the only song in which the female singer in the band shares lead vocals. This is a strategy that Dune might want to use more often, especially since her singing is stronger than his is anyway.

Unfortunately, most of the other songs on Mash Concrete Metal
won’t grab you by the ears on first, second, or even tenth listen. Herman Dune’s easygoing nature is both the album’s blessing and its curse. Other than the moments in which Dune sings off-key or lets his thick accent obscure his words (listen to him pronounce “week” like “wick” and “futon” like “fuh-tin” on “Futon Song”), this album won’t tax your patience. Neither will it have you reaching for the repeat button. The almost haphazard lack of urgency that characterizes the singing and playing on this record will translate to most listeners a bit too well.

---Sean Padilla

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