The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers
The Mother of Love Emulates the Shapes of Cynthia
(Bu Hanan Records)
What is it about the darker end of the emotional spectrum that lends itself to complexity? We all know the old adage that it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile, but is that parental chestnut an actual cosmic axiom? Is it that we are not the super-intelligent beings we are led to believe we are, and that compounding complexity only darkens our mood? Or is it in sadness where our particular talents shine, us being possibly the only creatures with the capacity for protracted depression? How is it that even talking about it leads one to loquaciousness? Whey are there always question marks when talking about sadness, but exclamation points when talking about joy?
This peculiarity about sadness applies directly to music, of course. The great intricacies in the canon are the requiems, the memorials, the meditations of loss. It's the three chord puddle jumpers that best project a sense of forward thinking and joy. So in the current stream of highly attenuated orchestrated music out there nowadays, there flows a sadness. A sadness well expressed, as it is by the subject of this diatribe: The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, whose music is as filigreed and laden as its name.
Their promo material (which by the way does not explain who this Sellers character is (a cursory web search made some mention of an old Chuck Connors western "Branded" but I didn't dig much deeper than that) mentioned that all critics say "it sounds like Radiohead" no matter what it sounds like, so I am going to go out on a limb here and say they sound more like the latter-day Flaming Lips, with the meshing of acoustic balladry, electronic flourishes and ping-pong stereotastic production. PTADS singer and lead architect Perry Wright's voice has a scratchy tentative quality about it, like these songs are hard to get out, hence their elaborate casing in Wright's command of language - this band might have one of the lowest song-to-title length ratios in the business.
The Mother of Love Emulates the Shapes of Cynthia opens with a sparse guitar and the line "Rehearse the sobriquets/a living love till dying days" on "The Eventual Intimate of So Much Nostalgia (Hutchinson Effect)" before giving way into a shifting array of cello and jet streams of guitar. This exigence is not just window dressing to fill out a song - these are spiny beasts not unlike those mysterious fish at the bottom of the ocean - they just seemed to evolve that way. "Concerning Lessons Learned from the Aliens" is a poignant ballad, possibly the best song on the album, letting subtle touches of vibraphone and strings and drum machine build a framework for it.
The acoustic guitar work (I believe done by Wright as well) is really the instrumental star of this show, making each song its own cozy bed to restlessly toss and turn in, fine examples of which are "Rotation of Crops" and "Cannot Eat Better Not Sleep" - the latter being the candidate for most likely to sound like the aforementioned r-word. I particularly like the way the backing track of rain falling mixes with the song on "The Slow Decay of Some Radio Afterglows" which, had either part been accentuated any stronger, it would kill the song, but the mix is just right - sounding like its emanating straight from the heart of that student apartment in which you used to lie awake and listen to the patter of rain and watch the water spots grow.
That's where the real success of this album lies, in not letting any of the elements making it up tip the boat over. Similar albums out in the mix, like Wilco's A Ghost is Born or even The Flaming Lips much-heralded Yoshimi all have this same sense of peppering the salad with sadness, but the balance is always a little off. Either the music is too bombastic or the lyrics too oblique, or something. Mother of Love.../em> manages to temper and tamper just enough to piece it all together right and make it a compelling piece of downer rock art. After repeated listens, one almost hopes this Sellers fella would let the prayers and tears drop and concentrate on hopes and dreams, but until the Lexapro kicks in, I'm quite content with the form his sadness makes.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com