There are few things that delight me to no end: babies dressed like secretaries, grumpy cats, and intelligently Photoshopped signage. Last but not least, it is when an artist sees things on an entirely different plane than the rest of us. The painter who sees the color of the universe and the musician who can think in aesthetics are on an entirely different level than the rest of us. Granted, they are not above the fray; demon dogs nip at their heels with the same frequency they do the rest of us. They just have a different way of warding them off.
I do not know what types of demon dogs follow Mike Shirley-Donnelly, founder of the bay area-based Curious Quail, but his compositions drive off the most insistent of malicious spirits. .:INSTANT GRATIFICATION:., the first full length release by the (now) seven-piece band, is everything I would ask of a pop album.
But Clay, they are indie!
Fine, they are indie. They are self-recorded, self-produced, they don’t use AutoTune, and they are more Postal Service than they are Mandy Moore. It is a concept album. They have thoughtfully titled tracks like: “Disappointed Smiles,” and “Survivor’s Guilt” and meta songs like “Hidden Track.” Whatever, this is a pop album. Every track is catchy. Tracks are between 3 and 5 minutes. Each song rests in a simple blueprint of verse-chorus, but their elegance is not confined by it. It is the landscape I wish, deep down, that pop music would traverse.
There is a Polaroid photo to accompany each track, but outside of that every track can be viewed as a painting. This speaks to Mike Shirley-Donnelly’s ability to really write a pop song. Every track starts out with a simple canvas of guitar and drum track. Shirley-Donnelly’s vocals have an Andy Hull-like throaty warble that is indecipherable at times, yet still poetic. Throw in some strokes of live drums, synthesizers, distorted guitars, and a couple strings here and there. Then everything builds and he goes into full Bob Ross mode: “let’s throw in a happy crescendo right here,” and “I think there is a Smashing Pumpkins riff hiding over here, let’s find the little rascal.”
You think it will end up being too much, but like a Bob Ross painting, the whole thing just works. Every layer, whether flawed or perfect, fits with every other layer and the buildup is fantastic. Some people know how to take wildly disparate sounds and pull them together into a bigger picture. I wish more of them had access to the in-routes for Top-40 radio, but that nut is a tough one to crack. In the meantime, I am glad to have this album for those spring days that you just want to get lost in the music.
The problem with “concept albums” is that, anymore, more often than not they lean toward the equivalent of modern interpretive dance choreographed by someone who did far too much acid in their early 20s. To each their own, but I’m not a fan of the audio equivalent of someone having a seizure under a rainbow of LED lights while wearing garbage bags.
I’m a fan of artistic expression as much as the next guy, so I wanted to give San Jose, California’s Curious Quail a spin knowing full well that .:INSTANT GRATIFICATION:. carries the “concept” flag with honor.
Where I was afraid of odd expressionism I found dynamic. Where I thought I’d find incoherent breakdowns I found melodies. My only regret is that I haven’t sat down with Curious Quail sooner.
The seven-piece from Northern California is a group of magicians; just when you think you’ve pinpointed them, they continue to surprise. .:INSTANT GRATIFICATION:. is thirteen tracks of everything that should not work together. 18-bit synths run headfirst into folk persuasions while unique vocals resonate vibrato over power rock beats. Mike Shirley-Donnelly (vocals, guitar, keys, driver of the whole experience) exudes a presence that should make me step back, but instead draws me in. As if facing some seemingly impossible dare, song after song Shirley-Donnelly twists his uniquely odd voice around layered mixes of progressive alt-folk/rock genius that shouldn’t work, but does. Joey Guthrie’s drums, on paper, feel entirely out of place; but on record, melt into the whole as vital as the brushstroke that holds it all in place. Sean Nolen’s guitars and Steve Garber’s bass back off to rhythm when needed, then simply explode with awe striking precision (see: “Survivor’s Guilt”). And as if this wasn’t enough Alan Chen, Gregory Keeney and Erin Keely bring violin, keytar, harmonica and accordion to the mix in beautiful arrangement.
I’m not sure I’ll be joining in any chant circles in the middle of a mall to add depth to someone’s spandex spasms in the name of “art” anytime soon, but I do know that thanks to Curious Quail, my fear of “concept albums” has been replaced by appreciation and intrigue.
Don’t be afraid of the unknown, experience it; experience Curious Quail.