Rabbit Ears

James McNew is a great big guy who draws himself as a tiny pink bunny. The packages of almost all the records he's made on his own as Dump have that self-caricature on them somewhere--it's McNew's trademark of modesty, a sign that he's thinking small, recording at home in his pajamas, and generally getting away from his more familiar gig as Yo La Tengo's tower of bass (a couple of Dump's rare live appearances have been backed up by the rest of YLT). In place of that band's catharsis, collaboration, and jam-friendliness, Dump is about keeping everything inside. A Plea for Tenderness is a heartbroken album about being happy, an unpretentious, handcrafted embrace of the kind of romantic melancholy that ordinarily results in Byronic garment rending and Smashing Pumpkins albums.

So what does a tiny pink bunny put on a record? Anything he wants, as they used to say about the 800-pound gorilla. The great advantage of unpretentiousness is that it lets you get away with all kinds of stuff like it's no big deal: eight straight minutes of a sliver of a riff, long undulating instrumentals for pacing's sake, a sample from childhood trauma--core clowns the Happy Flowers (on whose final album McNew played bass), a setting of nursing-home poetaster Ernest Noyes Brookings's doggerel, even a cover of Robert Knight's ''Everlasting Love'' that McNew plays absolutely straight, as the naked confession of adoration it is.

This last is a key to the album: he runs it through the Dumpifying machine so it's of a piece with his own songs, and beyond the homey production details (muffed notes, synth doubled by kazoo), that means that his own songs are of a piece with ''Everlasting Love.'' McNew's home-taping m.o. is that of an underground he's part of but not exclusively attached to: his real love is for records in general, and making his own seems like a devotional exercise. Dump's records are peppered with faithful renditions of songs by artists both obvious (Dylan, the Beach Boys) and non-. Covering Versus suggests that he hears the substance beneath the style of indie rock. Finding a Jandek number that's capable of being covered at all shows that he's got a truffle pig's nose for songs.

A Plea for Tenderness (title from a song on early Modern Lovers bootlegs--see?) isn't quite as covers-heavy as Dump discs tend to be; besides ''Everlasting Love,'' there's just the 13th Floor Elevators' ''On the Right Track Now'' and Jacques Dutronc's mid-'60s francophone stomp ''Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi.'' This is the smoothest-flowing album McNew's made to date, partly because he's worked out his bandmate Ira Kaplan's old trick of integrating his voice with the voices of his record collection. That's the little corner of Yo La's world that Dump expands on: the originals on A Plea half quote ''Heart of Gold'' and Chris Knox's home-recorded two-chord wonders and Young Marble Giants' staccato pulse and of course Ira and Georgia's pillowy, midtempo drones, because they're the stuff of McNew's life, his balm, companions, and inspiration.

When the cassette rolls, though, he's alone. There have been guests on Dump records before--one disc on the last double, I Can Hear Music, was an indie all-star jam with Tall Dwarfs, Barbara Manning, and Bettie Serveert--but, one harmonica solo aside, McNew made this album by his lonesome. He sings so quietly he could be speaking, or trying not to be noticed; in ''My Head in Your Hands,'' he reaches up for a few moments from the quavering peaks of his tenor to a pure-oxygen falsetto, and that's as close as the album gets to a cathartic moment--and even that sounds like he's quashing something forbidden. His voice is all swallowed pride, shielding itself beneath the thick, suffusive sound of an organ, or exposed as clipped and tremulous.

McNew's attitude may be that less is more, or it may just be that less is easier to mix on a four-track, but his arrangements work on gesture as much as groove, letting a few cymbal hits stand in for a drum part or a three-finger organ drone carry everything for a while. And his songwriting has become so straightforward it's practically archetypal. ''Positively Jeff Oliphant,'' for instance, is a crowd of stock ideas--taking it slow, not putting up a fight, being lost then found, walking home by oneself, and so on--pulled together and set to a simple cowboy lope that makes the whole thing sound familiar and affecting. ''So Long'' bobs on a few radiant chords for ages before McNew starts singing--a trick that worked a couple of years ago on ''International Airport,'' and works again here.

With its song titles, and effectively the songs themselves, handwritten in lowercase letters, like the box of a friend's mix tape, A Plea for Tenderness aims very low, and hits its mark cleanly. It doesn't mean much beyond what it sounds like, or at least that's how it acts. The album's warm, pretty consistency protects a singular fragility, hiding real sadness in a room full of records, a safe bunny hutch for the heart.

 
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