Dent May: Do Things
I think Dent May will have the Stephen Merritt problem for most of his life. Like the enigmatic Magnetic Fields frontman, May writes music that gives the impression his tongue is firmly planted into his cheek, even when he is pouring out his heart. Like Merritt, he got attention for playing the Ukulele, an instrument that in many circles can adds a “cheeky” factor to the sound. Like Merritt did on Distortion, May is making a concerted effort to change his sound, ditching the uke for some sparkling synths and the company of slinky basslines and drum machines, and the results are a mixed bag.
On the track “Fun,” May sings “I don’t know what is going to happen, but it is going to be fun.” This seems less like a lyric and more like a mission statement for the record. Everything from the glossy production to the album cover of May sitting on floating chair on a lake screams “not taking things too serious!” His debut album was chalk full of serious growing pains, with songs about girls, heartbreak and facing the realities of growing up, all sung with earnestness and delivered with minimal bells and whistles. It has become clear that May no longer wants to go down that avenue. From the sleazy, club funk of “Don’t Wait” to the lush, twinkling synth work on “Parents,” it is obvious that the aesthetic will be different on Do Things than on May’s debut from the first bars. For someone who burst onto the scene with a distinct sound (crooner with a uke), the new album might be a shock to some. He has released some (really great) singles between albums, but I am guessing most music fans aren’t as up on what is the new Dent May 7”, so this tectonic shift will be like a broadside from a truck. In some spots, like the Beach Boys gone electro synth sugary goodness of “Rent Money” and “Home Moan,” to the harmony filled “Tell Her,” the new sound really is a step forward. In other regards, like the clumsy funk of “Don’t Wait” and the bloated ballad “Do Things,” it can come across as cheesy and overshadow May’s clever songwriting.
I really liked May’s first stab at this new sound (the stone cold jam “I Don’t Mind” and the woozy, sexed up “Eastover Wives” plus his similar work with Hits Incorporated), but in listening through the record a few times it doesn’t hold up as well over 10 songs and 35 minutes. There are moments where the euphoric music synergizes with May’s sardonic crooning, but other times where it feels like water and oil. Like Merritt, May probably isn’t going to outrun his past work. No matter if he did a Christian hip hop opera, I still would think “You Can’t Force a Dance Party” when someone said the name Dent May. I appreciate artists branching out and trying new sounds, but May’s wholesale abandonment of what drew so many of us to him feels less like an artistic evolution that a shedding of skin. He clearly has songwriting chops, now he just needs to find that perfect medium to deliver them.
Stream the whole record over at the Spin Website.
See Dent May tonight at Cause in Minneapolis with Enola Gay and Buffalo Moon. The show is at 9pm and is $5.