Don't Shoot the Messenger
Usually I listen to a disc about three times front to back for a review. This doesn't prevent me from writing things I will change my mind about later, but it seems to be the fairest method. There are exceptions. A lot of droning home-recorded "experimental" music doesn't need me to sit through it more than once to reach a conclusion. And some songwriting identifies itself immediately as incompetent and/or plagiarized. All art is not created equal. I make no effort to treat musicians who are terrible equally to ones who are clearly talented, and neither should you. If your friends' band sucks and you know it does, you're not doing them any favors blowing smoke.
Employing seven band members and a long roster of guests, all working through parts intensely composed by Mostly Dead leader Andrew Nolte, Don't Shoot the Messenger is impenetrable on first, second, and even third approach. It's quite obviously the work of musicians who have mastered their art, as the constant bone-jarring meter shifts and smarty-pants vocal and instrumental harmonies will regularly remind you. Their combination of music-major chops and rambling hippie idealism doesn't leave you any really obvious comparisons. The only band I can think of with a similar hybrid of Danny Elfman and Tom Waits is Colorado's similarly inaccessible Orphaned Gears, a band whose ambition I admired -- and whose exhausting song lengths and triple-stuffed arrangements left me grasping for excuses to not have to listen to them.
Don't Shoot the Messenger is honest about the amount of work it's going to require from the listener, beginning as it does with tracks like "Fallen Out" that force all of Mostly Dead's details into short, tense songs. "Expect the Unexpected," with its rushing chant of "it could happen to you" at the climax, illustrates well how Nolte's compositions divide out accessible, rhythmically square parts with unsettling sections. Violin and horns interject in weird spaces, and abrasive guitar effects add to the feeling of displacement. Only towards the end of Messenger's running order do songs like the salsa "Hypnosis & Patches" and the beatnik swing "How Can You Know?" let the band stretch out in a more traditional way. Mostly Dead throw so much at the ear right out of the gate, it's possible to overlook how many really immediate elements there are to the album -- the string quartet that opens "Goodbye, Blue Planet," the jazzy fingersnaps and operatic female vocals of "Spoonful of Spin," big gang choruses on many tracks.
Although it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, Don't Shoot the Messenger strikes me as the definition of an artistically successful record. Why makes me say that? There's a method to Nolte's madness. If the music seeks to constantly keep the listener from getting comfortable, the lyrics answer the obvious question as to why the musicians want to elicit that reaction. At first the idealism of these broadsides, which use "you" and "we" pronouns just as often as "I" and "me," might be distasteful to more cynical listeners. I don't like so much to be lectured by my record albums. But if the big question over music and art in general is, "What's the point?", I don't have to ask myself why Mostly Dead sound the way they do. This is difficult, personal music crafted with a message in mind. As a critic, whether I agree with the message or not isn't at issue.
Don't Shoot the Messenger does a really fine job of creating an atmosphere that suits the lyrics. Mostly Dead are passionate about the state of our environment, culture, and relationships. Someone interpreting their music incompletely might see them as relentlessly negative, but they are conscientious about discussing solutions. In the same way they construct difficult songs but leave care to bring in anthemic, simpler sections when they are needed, Nolte isn't monochromatic with his lyrics. At points he can sound like he's issuing a laundry list of complaints, but he finds ways to mix it up. One is using sweeter vocals from bassist Mo Born and guest female singers to contrast his own raspy, hectoring tone. The instrumental arrangements often bring in a humor and lightness that the lyrics lack. Who can be unhappy listening to slide whistle, or a good sheepish melodica solo?
This was a big project. It sounds like one! A lot of very talented players worked hard to put this thing together. That's why it would be a shame if Mostly Dead did nothing for the whole length of Don't Shoot the Messenger besides announce how screwed the human race is. Thankfully, they are not entirely about listing problems without offering solutions. The chorus from "Serpents & Doves" illustrates their balance between hyperbole and twisted optimism best: "Unbearable sorrow and perpetual pain/In the darkest of hours on the blackest of days/I can still hear music."
P.S. Don't Shoot the Messenger on CD ends with an amazing 25-minute composition, "The Pledge of Unification Vol. 1," that's like a whole second Mostly Dead record unto itself... it has elements from the 10 songs that precede it, plus solo sections for all the instruments, plus a lot more lyrics (including some overdue discussion of what can be accomplished through music as opposed to complaining). It's a great introduction to their world but I feel like it should be treated as a separate piece. Coming at the end of a pretty weighty full-length, as it does, it seems like overkill, but if you sit down and listen to it by itself I think it's the most suitably overblown thing they've yet done.