“Abilene” is the single off The Decent Lovers’ new EP, Quit Trying (to be released on April 16). The upbeat quirk-pop song is all misfit good vibes from the xylophone hits to the raw guitar chords. “Liquor shelf to yourself, you still seem as cool to me as when we were 16, I fell in love with the pawnshop prom queen,” Elijah Wyman sings. It’s a complicated tune that comes off as simple. Memory given the benefit of hindsight paired with the festering infection of time.
If Elvis Costello had been born in the ’80s, is this the kind of song he’d write these days? I hope so. My inner teen who so loved My Aim Is True and is so disappointed by everything that isn’t My Aim Is True has spent decades searching for songs that have the same punch and nerd-punk sensibility of “Mystery Dance.” “Abilene” fits that bill.
The Decent Lovers is/are singer-songwriter/mastermind Elijah Wyman and “often Jason Rozen” according to the band’s Facebook page. There, Wyman writes, “The DL is fun, pop music with witty lyrics, folk instruments and a computer. I love autoharps, samplers, NMH, pop radio, slinky bass, Sufjan, marimba and Missy Elliot.” I would hazard a guess that there’s some of all of that on Quit Trying.
“Year of the Flame” is a song of two moods: The “I was born in a hurricane” verse(ish) part, which is thick and dark with shivery synth and thundering, reverb-drenched percussion; and the “where were you boy” chorus(ish) part, which is spare and loud, with shouted vocals (Rozen) and the staccato of marimba.
“Bold As Lions” is an underdog anthem, showcasing Wyman’s vocal range as well as his quirky poetry. This is an atypical love song underscored by a fierce punch and a scissor slash of strings run through effects and atmosphere.
The next track, “Brooklyn Rules Football” borrows the same instrumentation but changes up the vocal approach. This is darker material, more grinding, more intellectual. “I just want to be where the honey is sweetest,” Wyman sings against the pulsing beat, the pitch of his voice suggesting that it was not a sweet moment that inspired this rather cryptic song.
There are plenty of sweet moments on Quit Trying, and lots of daring as well. This is a pop EP, but if mainstream pop is bubblegum, this is the carob cake served at the birthday party of the kid who wears hand-knitted sweaters, excels at the parachute portion of gym class and can recite large sections of Where the Sidewalk Ends.
“I’m Happy All the Time” closes the album with an ironic approximation of Hawaiian lap steel. Another off-kilter love song, this track is sung close to the mic, with vocals in front of an increasingly heavy rainstorm of marimba and percussion. Here, a ukulele would be the obvious choice and that Wyman doesn’t use one is interesting — and admirable. Because if there’s one thing the Decent Lovers are not, it’s predictable.
And, often — in lovers and in bands — an element of surprise equals an elevation in performance status. But, just so it doesn’t go unsaid, the Decent Lovers are really very good.