The Teenage Prayers
True Love Through Better Music
n the cover of Ten Songs, the first release from Brooklyn-based soul/rock outfit the Teenage Prayers, there is an image of suburban rooftops on the low of the horizon, while an airplane is in lift-off among hand-swiped clouds. Below, the attic windows bear American flag decals, and an air-conditioner rests easy in another. This is Wonder Years atmosphere: mythic, yet all too realistic, it is a place set between peace and temptation, innocence and desire. In other words, the perfect breeding ground for soul music. And clearly, the Teenage Prayers have spent a good amount of time here.
The first track, “Brown Bottle,” tells the story of a rough-around the edges muse whose beauty begets only the finest of white-trash poetics: “She’s dirty from New Jersey / She’s a debutante straight from the pages / Of a Popular Mechanic.” To the narrator, her scars are evident, but beautiful: “She’s a tramp / And that’s what you say / But the price of a bottle / Is in empathy.” Be it a stunning woman, or alcohol, this song reveals that a remedy is hard to resist, no matter the consequences.
In the next song, “Center of the World,” we listen to the aching hesitance in the vocalist Tim Adams’ voice as he foreshadows the aftermath of his desires: “Once upon a time these lines weren’t broken down / And on the ground / Once upon a time… when I was faithful.” As he continues to describe his muse in amusing and defiant phrase (“Her name ain’t Claire or Clementine / Dawn or Cindy,” supported by Dion like “doodly-doodly-doos” from the band), we realize she hasn’t completely lost his heart. It’s just that, as reverent as he may be, he’s just as unapologetic, if not in favor of his ulterior intentions. “I swear I won’t forget you, Jane / But I’m gonna be home late.” So when he tells her, “I’m better at the center of the world / So take me to the center of the world,” its only to say, sometimes we ask for our won hell, and sometimes, we just feel best when at our worst—even if it hurts someone else.
As the self-destruction tapers off for a bit, spirits are lifted by “She Ain’t My Baby”; a classic, clapping soul song, reminiscent of Cat Stevens’ “Here Comes My Baby.” Only here, instead of talking up his muse, he takes the admiration down a notch or two. Instead of a tortured heroine, we get, “She ain’t no different / She’s the same as you and me.” Sung in deadpan phrase, these are the kind of lyrics that display how good the Teenage Prayers are at revealing the underlying humor beneath the cold heart of realism, and how manic love can be.
“Teenage Dreams,” fittingly, is a standout, with closed-eyes harmonicas and plenty of blue moonlight to back a bygone-days tale of innocence stained. A hymn holy and sacred, it moves along as if the band were singing from a crack in the closet, as Adams’ watched on omnisciently: “Somewhere there’s / a picture of you / before I went and got / you pregnant.” The next song, “Acetylene Summer,” is just as intriguing. Here, singing from a place softly destroyed, the muse finally gets to share her perspective: “I’m such a sucker / All set-down on a self-destructive loser.” Seems a fair call. And when it seems, in this tempo-switching duet, the muse and bemused have reached that place of no return, we hear a bit of the Mamas and the Papas reborn in the refrain: “You gotta do what you gotta do / What you gotta do.” The conclusion of this love-sick story is clearly hinted at.
The chorus of the closing song, “Goodbye Baby,” a Solomon Burke cover produced by legendary soul man himself, pretty much says it all. Harmonies that carry the glee as if they had their arms around each others’ shoulders, the band shouts: “Goodbye baby! / Goodbye, baby / Goodbye!” One is led to believe through the happy belting that this separation was indeed a long time coming. And for a moment, one can hear the distant hum of the airplane from the cover photograph, and imagine Adams standing in this backyard at one time, alone, with restless feet and shaded eyes; a reminder of how often we wish for escape, only to watch things go by. But as much time one does spend in a helpless state, it ends up meaning all that much more to finally break free. For, as Adams shows, it doesn’t take an airplane to leave it all behind; just walking out the door can carry its own sense of flight.
Reviewed by: Sue Bell
Reviewed on: 2006-01-11