The incomparable Mick Jagger once famously sang that `you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.’ I’ve been going through a rough period in my life recently, and for your sake I’ll spare you the details. Needless to say, when you’re in the business of listening to a lot of pop music, sadness, introspection and depression sort of come with the territory. Musician after songwriter after rock star seem to funnel their angst into song after song, inevitably having a drastic effect on the average music critic. Think about it; it’s no wonder that music critics can be such opinionated isolationist jerks; they’re being bombarded 24/7 by emotional instability. There’s a lot I want out of life, but as Mick so eloquently put it above, I can’t really rely on that. But, as I’ve struggled with purpose, direction and happiness, as luck would have it, I did find what I needed, that being Page France.
With murky cinematic instrumental music making a huge comeback and pop music still as dour as ever, it seemed there was no room for whimsy or even music that centered itself around the literate lyrics found in the old guard of rock such as Dylan and Young. I myself, even, just last week wrote a review in which I claimed that pop music as a rule had to be dark as much as honest. Boy, was I wrong! Luckily, Baltimore’s Page France came to my emotional rescue (pun intended) with their fifth album, …And the Family Telephone. On this particular release, Page France manages to balance a reverence for folk tradition with an ear toward independent pop. Only a few bands have managed to pull this difficult straddle, such as Neutral Milk Hotel and Sufjan Stevens, and Page France can now easily stand alongside these cult heroes.
Michael Nau is the principle songwriter and frontman for Page France, and he has the requisite unique vocal delivery for such a wondrous combination of styles, like a hybrid of Dylan and Mangum. Just listen to “The Belly in the Fish” and you’ll get the idea. For a while now, Page France has been, perhaps unfairly, pigeonholed as a `Christian band,’ with Nau commenting that any reference to religious symbolism being somewhat unconscious. The same happens in Family Telephone, as happens with any artist who is openly Christian, finding devout followers looking for clues like a child looking for that last marshmallow in their bowl of Lucky Charms. At one point, Nau specifically sings, “I would kiss the devil’s cheek to get this halo off of me,” perhaps as a display of frustration with the label. What Nau and an ever more contributory band bring to this record is a host of animal imagery, fun and erudite lyrics and a plethora of instruments all lending themselves to creating a smile-inducing album that can be listened to again and again.
I recently discovered a brilliant video of an early Kermit the Frog on his first show, “Sam and Friends,” playing the banjo and singing the traditional folk song, “A Horse Named Bill.” Its incredibly humorous and nearly nonsensical lyrics call to mind the greats of whimsical writing including Shel Silverstein with lines such as `jump on your hat, your toothbrush, or your grandma, or anything that’s helpless.’ It made me laugh, but it also told a story, and in the end, that’s what made it great. Michael Nau has that same gift, the ability to tell stories through songs that are as much traditional folk as indie pop and vice versa. Nau provided me with what I needed without my even knowing what that was, a smile on my face and the knowledge that music indeed can be playful as much as it is good and interesting.
MP3: “Hat and Rabbit”