Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror
Wake up Captain


t’s no secret that the greatest songwriters have generally preferred misery to ecstasy, using the pop song to express the very things for which everyday living often proves so ill suited. And though perhaps less bountiful in recent years, the wellspring of inspiration located in the pop music/emotional trauma nexus still seems as if it might never run completely dry—that as long as there are radios and melodically-gifted depressives, loneliness will be trapped in the decay of four-second reverbs and seemingly buoyant optimism will be exposed as unspeakable despair sometime in the space of three minutes.

Last heard from two years ago, troubadour Kevin Tihista has apparently been contemplating as much in what seems to have been a turbulent interim. “You’ve got to open your life”, he sings on plaintive opener “Real Life”, repeating the line so many times it’s as if the stage-shy Chicagoan is still convincing himself. It’s understandable; while autobiography may not have been entirely absent from 2001’s Don’t Breathe A Word and its remarkable follow-up, Judo, introspection wasn’t exactly required attire either. Such breezy fare as “I’m In Love With Girls” and “Lose That Dress” found the onetime Veruca Salt sideman positively reveling in the good times, hiding his gentle voice behind the cushion of double-tracked vocals, Harrison-esque slide guitars and Smartie-sweet tunes that would not have sounded out of place in a Wes Anderson soundtrack. But despite a formidable display of pop craftsmanship, both records were sunk by the sort of developments that seem to stalk Tihista’s brand of classicist, guitar-based pop like Death incarnate: major label quagmires and press that emphasized how much better this would sell in Britain.

Perhaps sensing a need to elevate the stakes, Tihista charts a course across Wake Up Captain’s 18 tracks occupied not by delicious temptresses but hospital visits, ticking bombs and immense, swallowing oceans. The new aesthetic is showcased most clearly on dissonant centerpiece “Family Curse”—a portrait of adolescent vulnerability so baldly personal that Tihista considered dropping it from the album. The song features a teenaged Kevin spurning the girl up the street, whose attention he finds patronizing. “You’re so sweet,” he sneers, mocking her compliment, before exposing the bitter frustration behind his shy exterior: “I don’t talk—who cares. I don’t fucking talk / But you know I love hard. I love harder than you / I love hard. I love way too hard.”

Brutally honest, “Family Curse” isn’t the most revealing track on Wake Up Captain, only the most direct, as Tihista dresses similar tales of personal wreckage in a seemingly endless reserve of gallows humor. The spry “Good Wings” is worthy of Nilsson, both in its employment of a skittering melody and lyric about the pitfalls of heavy drinking, while “Yummy”, ostensibly a nod to the Ohio Express bubblegum hit, is a bleak commentary on the pharmaceuticals that render personal interaction tolerable for the songwriter. Only “OK” finds Tihista taking a brief respite from his own despair to strike a reassuring tone.

Indeed, few pleasures come easily on Wake Up Captain, as Tihista intentionally buries his most infectious tunes, sabotaging easily digested moments as if they were too facile. The toe-tapping middle-eight of “Sweet” is delivered with a walkie-talkie filter that renders the lyrics all but unintelligible; elsewhere, snatches of melody materialize only to disappear as quickly as they emerged. As such, the responsibility for sweetening the results falls to longtime co-producer/collaborator Ellis Clark, who delivers arrangements rich with fuzz-tone, synthesizer and orchestral luster. The working man’s Jon Brion, Clark liberally splashes Eleanor Rigby strings and oddly-figured trumpets over Tihista’s voice and acoustic—lending contrapuntal levity to tracks like the wistful “Damn the Weather” and ghostly “Ride”. Only on “Freakshow”, a rollickingly garish grand guignol—all lumbering trombones, rubberband guitar and pounding piano—does the dynamic fail, lapsing into outright self-pity as Tihista warns friends off of his train wreck of an existence.

Though perhaps a shade too long and lacking the immediacy his previous indulgences in pop savvy allowed, Tihista and Clark have nonetheless fashioned a challenging and often moving song-cycle with Wake Up Captain—one that ought to separate the stage-shy songwriter from the Ed Harcourt pack, while securing him the respect and following he deserves on his native shores. Wake Up Captain may not be an easy album to love. But in the eyes of Tihista anyway, neither is its creator. One suspects he prefers it that way.

Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner

Reviewed on: 2004-12-01

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