Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Will to Rock

Sometimes You've Gotta Fight to Get a Bit of Peace
The Cocker Spaniels

The best songs on Sometimes You've Gotta Fight... are imperatives. "Steal My Guitar," "Touch My Hair," "Gimme Back My Red Pen." I don't think that this is all an accident. Many are driven to make music, for internal or external reasons, but few are as lucid about the power of the art form to change minds and forge relationships as Sean Padilla, top dog in The Cocker Spaniels. The band's music is cute and fluffy on the surface, but it can sink its teeth into you and cling ferociously, like at least one other example of the breed I can recall.

Padilla's home-recorded aesthetic and his generosity of melody reflect his admitted Guided by Voices influence, but his crack musicianship and theatrical flourishes come from a different place entirely. The Cocker Spaniels remind me of Queen sometimes, and I'm not just saying that because of the witty "We Will Rock You" boot stomp-and-hand clap break that elevates the arrangement of "Cousin Ben." Piling on layers of expertly performed instruments and as many details as the limitations of the recording allow, at its most majestic Sometimes can sound like an orchestra of all rock instruments. As a one-man project (with guest stars), Padilla doesn't try to make each track sound like a band performing a song all the way through on stage. Musical surprises and quick turns abound.

The obvious but seldom flashy instrumental chops do a good job of keeping the listener from getting complacent. This goes hand in hand with the lyrics, which are thought-provoking yet straightforward; some sound like proverbs. A sensitive soul, Padilla is forever in internal conflict. He's a talented, indeed brilliant, songwriter who deserves to be heard and discussed, but at the same time he's a humble, retiring sort who can't stand selfish people ("Help and Hassle"). He's cursed by the intelligent man's struggle. He knows he's a better musician and a better writer than most (how can he not? he's awesome!) but he's loathe to go around bragging about it.

Let me brag for him. There aren't a lot of songwriters anywhere who can directly communicate their own experience so simply and so effectively. Cocker Spaniels take on uncomfortable topics like bad sex ("Practice Makes Perfect"), racism ("The Mercy of Mechanics"), an artist's angst over originality and authorship ("Red Pen"), and the bailout economy ("The Overeducated Underclass") in a straightforward, journalistic manner. Padilla doesn't editorialize too much, sticking largely to his emotions in the moment and allowing the listener to draw their own conclusions. If he has a weakness it's that his instincts as a musical perfectionist sometimes clash with his lyrics, leading to rhyme schemes here and there that are a touch too pat and precious.

Padilla is better at writing about his own unique experiences than finding new words to describe emotions shared by everyone. His song about the bond between he and his old roommates ("Bromance on 29th") hits home way more than any of the actual romantic numbers on Sometimes You've Gotta Fight. "Thicker Than Blood," with its corny acoustic-and-bongos intro, can't avoid the sappiness trap -- that's OK, Tommy Lee couldn't write a good song about a baby either. The record is so wide-ranging, though, that often it responds to possible criticisms before they can even be made. "Anchor City" has a backing that's way too cluttered and busy for the desolate setting, one of the few cases on the album of lyric and music not clicking together. But then the closer, "Postcard from Exile," returns to the same subject matter and absolutely nails it. Touches of rhumba and Latin horns in spots indicate that Cocker Spaniels have bravely brought in guest musicians to expand their sound out further rather than reinforcing what they can already do well. Padilla's very high singing voice might seem a little too cute here and there, but those who feel so need only listen more closely to the words.

Unquestionably, the best record this year that you can get free with cookies.

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