When the current three-piece lineup of Minmae took the stage at this year’s South by Southwest, it seemed as if no one in the audience was happier than Daniel Black. A close friend of Minmae frontman Sean Brooks, Black recently abandoned shoegaze and noise-rock (which he explored as both a member of a previous incarnation Sean’s band and as the frontman of the And/Ors) for poppier pastures with his current project, the September Gurls. Upon hearing Minmae debut their new songs, Daniel was elated to discover that his friend was following a similar artistic trajectory. “He’s gone pop!,” Daniel shouted to me, emphasizing his point with a nudge to my shoulder nearly forceful enough to dislocate it. While I wouldn’t say that Minmae has turned into Big Star with their latest album, Ya Te Vas?, it is plain to see that Sean Brooks’ music has gotten progressively cleaner over the last ten years.
In the liner notes of Microcassette Quatrains, a recent release of a lost album recorded back when Minmae was a lo-fi one-man show, Brooks wrote that his music “is reflective of my somewhat deluded interpretation of modern everyday life insomuch as the more noise and drone aspects are in the foreground and the essential message is abstruse and not very audible.” He must have received a serious reality check sometime between then and now because Ya Te Vas? is a nearly complete reversal of this interpretation. Even on the noisier songs (“Circumspect...I Followed It,” “The Unfettered Idealist,” “I Was Buoyant”), the distorted guitars serve as a means to embellish the song, not to overwhelm it. You can make out most of the lyrics now, and it is good to know that Sean is just as capable of being straightforward as he is of being oblique. For every nonsensical couplet like “I walk with Mary and her son but I do not pay Peter/I handle Mary and her gun but I don’t pay meter” (“Just Take Me As I Am”), there’s a heartrending moment like the first verse of “My Conviction,” in which Sean vows to clean the house to keep his girlfriend from leaving him.
Ya Te Vas? is sequenced strangely in that most of the slighter songs take up the first half of the record. Opener “The Previous Show” and “Straight from the Box” are products of the GBV School of ADD songwriting, running through one verse and one chorus before abruptly ending. “Forget to Mention” and “Circumspect...I Followed It” are more notable for their textures than they are for any actual hooks. The former song coasts on choppy stop/start rhythms until the gorgeous coda, in which layers of sweet E-bowed guitars swirl around each other, and the latter song is little more than a cool, simple guitar riff blown up to arena-sized proportions. Minmae don’t start really earning your money until halfway through, when “Kelly in SE” announces itself as the upbeat rocker that Death Cab for Cutie forgot to include on Transatlanticism. From that point onward, the songs get longer, better, and more expansive.
“The Unfettered Idealist” begins as a ballad about a slowly hardening heart, but then segues into a rollicking three-chord jam atop which Sean mumbles bitterly to himself. It’s as if the music gets more intense the more impatient and bitter the song’s protagonist gets. The aforementioned “My Conviction” wins points not only because it’s a love song that is earnest without being corny, but also because it’s the album’s catchiest song. Last but not least, there’s album closer “Setting Sun Turns Blue,” in which Sean rebukes his suicidal thoughts by telling the Grim Reaper to stop reminding him of past mistakes. As heavy as the subject matter sounds, the band’s shambling shuffle makes the song go down easy.
The lazy slide and acoustic guitars that permeate many of the songs on Ya Te Vas? give me the impression that this is the kind of album that the Preston School of Industry should have made instead of the dire Monsoon: slightly countrified indie-rock that prides itself on intelligence and craft above all else. Like PSOI’s Scott Kannberg, Sean Brooks can be his own worst enemy when it comes to how his songs are presented. Brooks’ terminally shaky baritone will always be an acquired taste (paradoxically, he sounds better when he strains his voice for the higher notes than when he stays within his “range”), and his attempts at guitar solos can be the musical equivalent of Russian roulette. Unlike Kannberg, though, Sean still sounds like he’s trying. If Minmae’s preceding mini-album True Love didn’t do it already, Ya Te Vas? proves once and for all that there were always real, and often good, songs hiding underneath Minmae’s blanket of noise. I wouldn’t call this music “pop,” but at least my mother can listen to this with me without plugging her ears.
(I know this because she was next to me reading a newspaper while I typed this review.)
Artist Website: http://www.minmae.com
Label Website: http://www.devilinthewoods.com