Listening to a band's second album is always an interesting experience. So inveterate is the human tendency to try to understand things by organizing and labeling them that listening to as little as a single album from a band creates an extensive set of expectations, particularly if we like the band. We feel that we "know" the band and its music; when the band changes membership or musical style or even something trifling, we react, sometimes strongly.
Thus some might consider the Dime Store Prophets' new album, Fantastic Distraction, a "sophomore slump." My first impression was rather mixed. It is certainly not a carbon copy of their debut album., but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Once I was able to set aside my expectations and listen to the songs on Fantastic Distraction in their own right, they began to grow on me.
The new album lacks some of the musical drive found on Love Is Against the Grain. Except for "Yeah Sure OK Monet," there are no out and out rockers a la "Feels Like Rain" or "Love Is Against the Grain." Justin Steven's vocals are also less rapid-fire. The fastest songs on Fantastic Distraction "Break the Blue" and "Yeah Sure OK Monet," are merely mid-tempo. It is not that DSP has changed their sound drastically. They're just covering a narrower range of tempos.
All this is not to say that the songs on Fantastic Distraction lack the passion and urgency that have marked DSP. Passion doesn't require a certain beats-per-minute, as "Hitler's Girlfriend" demonstrated on Love Is Against the Grain. "Suckers Alchemy " and "Heavy As It Goes" on Fantastic Distraction show likewise.
The lyrics here are just as imaginative, poetic, and personal as the songs on Love is Against the Grain. Justin Stevens has a knack for combining uncommon images. "Boxing Shadows" combines the disparate images of shadow-boxing as metaphor f or futility, boxing as metaphor for life struggles, basements as places to hide, and storagerooms in looking at his life honestly. "It's All About You" is another study in the contrasts and contradictions of our lives. Not many writers will allude to 20th century pop psychology ("twelve steps forward and thirteen steps back"), alchemy, mythology ("the dragon's tooth is deep"), radio ("did you get the transmission I am sending/ I am dialed into your frequency"), and futuristic technology ("You've penetrated my radar/ I await your tractor beam") in the same album.
The interplay of words and music on this album is interesting, too. Looking at the lyric sheets that came with the album, I imagined that the songs "Soothsayer" and "Suckers Alchemy" might be fairly intense rockers. The vocals are intense, but the music is more subdued than I expected. But the words and music work for the most part. Only on "All About You," when Justin sings "Sometimes my Fender's at 10, full of chaos, angst and rage" and I don't hear chaos, angst, or rage, do the words and lyrics go separate ways.
A slightly different example: the title and lyrics of the penultimate song, "King of the Tragic Ones," suggest a slow brooding tune, but the music owes more to the late sixties, with its horn arrangements and keyboard work, than the edgy, angst-ridden 90s. The music cancels any tendency of the lyrics to be taken too seriously. And beneath the surface, the lyrics suggest that angst for its own sake is not useful: "Never much for celebration/ Always raining on someone else's parade/ St. Joe of the self afflicted/ Deeper meanings for a simple day." And the album ends with "Heavy as It Goes," a profession of faith in and a confession of need for God. Justin's lyrics take God seriously, but Justin himself not too seriously.
Four of the songs were produced by John Keane, who has worked with bands such as REM, 10,000 Maniacs, and Cowboy Junkies. Fans of the Vigilantes of Love will also recognize Keane's engineering and instrumental contributions to VoL's albums. The rest of Fantastic Distraction was produced by DSP's Masaki Liu, who has done a great deal of studio and production work for both 5 Minute Walk and Sarabellum labels. Folks with sharper ears than I have will be able to detect more differences between the Keane and Masaki produced songs. I can only say that Keane didn't try to change DSP in any fundamental ways, which to my taste is a very good thing.
My recommendation: buy this album, and tell all your friends and neighbors to buy it, too. If you already know and love DSP, be prepared for something a little different, but nonetheless something that is still recognizably and essentially DSP. If you haven't heard DSP before, treat yourself to some good honest words and some pretty decent rock-n-roll music.