A friend of mine, a dutifully loyal Red Sox fan, found himself speechless when someone told him, in defending the hated Yankees, “Without the Yankees, there would be no Red Sox Nation.” He realized there is no argument against this age-old philosophical paradox of `without evil, there is no good.’ In turn, everything good has a dark side. Psapp, the London duo whose eclectic music is made with toy instruments and various studio-produced stutters and glitches, are far too often dismissed as cutesy or innocent. I don’t mind the fact that their music is adventurous enough to earn them their own genre tag (toytronica), or that their music has so saturated the market as to lose any kind of mystery. I mean, once one of your songs becomes the theme song for a hit prime time soap opera disguised as drama / procedural, does that mean you lose all credibility? Massive Attack sure hasn’t, so why must Psapp?
“Cosy in the Rocket” aside, (aka Gray’s Anatomy theme song), Psapp’s songs have been featured in a host of other television shows, and have made a name for themselves for putting on entertaining live shows in which the duo throws handmade stuffed cats into the crowd. Okay, yes it all adds up to more cutesy behavior, but there’s more to Psapp than that, as new album The Camel’s Back proves. Leadoff album track and second single, “I Want That,” is more Lynchian in its off kilter guitar chords, wailing sax and Galia Durant’s sultry jazz alley voice than it is Wiggles-esque, despite the sound of bubbles throughout. The accompanying video is quite possibly the most disturbing thing I’ve seen with puppets since Meet the Feebles or the video for “Land of Confusion.” Yes, there is something more menacing than a foam rubber Phil Collins chin. The strings and innocent keyboards at the intro to “Part Like Waves” are less dissonant than the sounds of its predecessor, but still decidedly adult. Imagine a Celtic pop version of a Simon & Garfunkel tune and you might get the picture. Either way, it’s hard to get out of your head.
The signature toy pianos emerge within the title track, complete with wheezing steam engine noises to cut the treacle, but the subject matter does more than enough to turn the song from mere childishness into a delicate balance. “The Camel’s Back” is like Eeyore, a very depressing subject in a childlike landscape. Throughout the album, Durant’s voice is truly enchanting. Her hushed and relaxed style is somewhere in the middle ground between Lily Allen, Madeleine Peyroux and Alison Moyet. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Fickle Ghost.” “The Monster Song,” the album’s first single release, could be one of the best uptempo pop tracks of the year. There’s simply no way to feel bad while listening to this song. The mix of sounds throughout The Camel’s Back is wondrously measured, dark Tom Waits-esque growls and machine noises juxtaposed with the bubbly toys and sunny cuteness. It’s like seeing the Muppet Babies working in the engine room of a turn of the century tramp steamer. Listen to the short instrumental interlude, “Homicide,” and you’ll get my meaning.
As “Homicide” proves, the album isn’t all about Durant’s lovely vocal turn. One listen to the other instrumental “Marshrat,” and you’ll discover how intricate their music truly is, and just as captivating without any lyrics. Each of these songs could exist as an instrumental, but we are lucky enough to get the best of both worlds. “Fix It” is one of those perfect combinations. And, if I’m not mistaken, you can hear Brunhilde, the band’s mechanical chicken, in the background. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s been said that the two members of Psapp, Durant and Carim Clasmann, got together over a love of Tom Waits, the Cure, Erik Satie and Duke Ellington. While that may not seem a group of artists that could meld together seamlessly, Psapp manage to pull it off, and prove that each of the elements exists within their music. If there has ever been a precocious little sister to “Love Cats,” it is “Mister Ant.” Yet, Psapp play it just as beautifully straight as they do all cutesified, as on the sedate piano / vocal track, “Screws.” Closing track “Parker” hearkens back to a simpler time, and the kind of music we loved to bring back in groups like the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
As I was saying, there’s a lot to like about Psapp. Of course, some will cling to the cuteness of the band’s kitschy toytronica style, while others may enjoy the retro, ’20s or bossa nova aspects of the band. But, those who will get the most enjoyment out of Psapp will be able to see both sides, the dark and the light, the silly and the disturbed, the carefree and the lonely. Of course, all of these aspects are only separated by the thinnest of lines. But, Psapp tread that line masterfully, and nowhere more so than on The Camel’s Back, its title yet another metaphor for balance, and knowing one’s boundaries. In other words, Psapp are like the Frosted Mini Wheats of the indie pop world.
Video: “The Monster Song”