Release Date: June 12th, 2012
Label: Paw Tracks
One of my favorite films is Groundhog Day. It’s a brilliant comedy that takes a fun premise and builds it to an unexpectedly poignant level of thought and emotion, successfully doing what countless gut-wrenching dramas have tried and failed to do – and it does this without ever losing that comedic sense of “fun.” It’s a masterpiece. But “fun” is a tricky word when it comes to art. With music, “fun” albums may have a permanent place in the car, but they’re rarely found on year-end best of lists. Just as the Academy Awards rarely looks to comedies for their best picture nods (Groundhog Day received exactly zero nominations), “fun” albums are brushed aside as “guilty pleasures” or, when enough people latch onto a single, “mainstream.” This model isn’t completely wrong; it’s easier to make a track catchy through pop repetition than it is to compose something emotionally devastating. But still, when a piece of art pushes the simplicity of “fun” someplace new, redefining the concept itself, it deserves both our attention and our respect. And in certain extraordinary cases, it deserves our accolades. Groundhog Day is one of these films. Dent May’s Do Things is one of these albums.
The first thing a piece of “fun” art must introduce is inventiveness, or at least a fresh perspective on something familiar. The style of Dent May’s Do Things is a cauldron of genres never before mixed. At the heart of the sound we have May’s proud, southern sensibility, a tone that would fit in well at a smoky easy listening lounge from the late 50s alongside someone like Bobby Vinton. Contrast this with the backbone of the melody: a funk bass that pounds and kicks from start to finish, never giving in for a second. Throw in the occasional arena rock electric guitar, spacey synths that could score an early IBM commercial, and random real life sounds like laughter, rain, or applause, and you have the recipe for Do Things. With all these competing genres, one would think the sound would be all over the place, but May tightly tucks everything into place. Instead of a jumbled mess, Do Things is perfectly compact. Somehow, every piece of the puzzle feels like it came from the same box, and May crafts them all together into a world that is irreverent, natural, and so very special.
This album is southern small-town America, filled with the youth that drives around making their own fun at bowling alleys and in the parking lots of abandoned strip malls. This is an album that speaks to those who know which gas station in town has the best ice for their fountain sodas, and who understand that driving around on a summer night debating what to do can yield better results than anything planned. Filled with the minutia that defines these kinds of summer memories, Do Things introduces a world that southerners know all too well. For those who never lived in the south, May smartly sticks to classic pop themes to make the album universal for everyone. His songs address young love, expectations, home, the day-to-day grind of having a nine-to-five job, friendship, and yes, the heat-filled moments of wonderment that only summer can bring. None of these themes are new, but in the hands of May, everything presented is completely fresh, with a perspective only his imagination could deliver.
But what puts Do Things on the same level as Groundhog Day? Both pieces of art introduce a world with rules that, once accepted by the listener/viewer, result in a fun yet remarkably thoughtful experience. In Groundhog Day, we know and come to love the repetition of the same day over and over, but the film is always one step ahead of the viewer. Every new scene elevates the fun we have with the rules of the premise. On Do Things’ opening track, “Rent Money,” May makes it very clear that this album will be presenting strife juxtaposed with relief. He bottles up the feeling of hearing that last school bell before summer and unleashes it in the form of music. From then on, each track presents a slice of human introspection, then dissolves into that first drink after a long day. The rules of Do Things ask the listener to think hard and then forget about it. Focus, then relax. Hold on tight, but let go.
While many can listen to Do Things and hear a “fun” record that acts as the perfect summer soundtrack, May is quietly elevating the idea of fun music to high art. It’s as thoughtful as it is playful, as controlled as it is all over the place, as quirky as it is serious. It’s an album of juxtaposition, a record that allows each individual listener to take it as they want to. Some people love Groundhog Day because they get to see a Groundhog drive a car… others love it because of the complex workings of the narrative and overall arc of Murray’s complicated character. Neither viewer is watching Groundhog Day wrong, but the difference is in the layers of thought. There’s something there for everyone. Do Things is no different. May allows the listener to have some unabashed fun, or to stop and analyze that kind of fun. Either way, Do Things works on both layers, and in doing so challenges the notion that “fun” and “artistic” are mutually exclusive.