t would be so easy for everything else on Schmotime to take a back seat to Dan Michaelson’s voice. His extraordinarily deep, gruff vocals drip with weariness, perfectly suiting a lot of the subjects on offer: drunken, dead-end relationships; self-hatred; infidelity; and murder investigations among them. “Hey Tramp,” proves that he can carry a song himself—making the otherwise slightly charisma-free acoustic lament a captivating one.
The best thing about Schmotime though, is that it does so much more than coast on his subterranean drawl—and rarely sounds weary at all. Alt-country with only a bit of the “alt,” Absentee are never less than bright and lively musically. There is a momentum and hard edge lent to the sound by thunderous drumming and the brawny guitars lathered over it, but also a lovely twang to many of Schmotime’s best moments, with organ and horns pepping up most songs together with occasional lap steel and prettily cooed backing vocals from keyboard player Melinda Bronstein. It most reminds of early-century nearly-men Lowgold if they weren’t so determinedly, miserably monochromatic; or, in its more dense moments, a countrified Doves.
Meanwhile, lyrically, life is approached with a bleak but winning humour—admittedly this leads to a song being called “Truth Is Stranger Than Fishin’” but it’s otherwise very much for the good, with Michaelson’s bitter barbs actually given even more bite by their contrast with the music. “We Should Never Have Children” is an early highlight, explaining its title sentiment as being because “they’d be one in a million ugly swine” over a backing of happy child vocals, before concluding that “some people never should have met, let alone found themselves in bed” and exploding into a vicious guitar climax. “You Try Sober,” a duet with Bronstein, sees an excellent reversal of expectations whereby she sweetly declares her love and intentions to make their relationship work, only for Michaelson to insist that she should repeat it when she’s less drunk.
Admittedly, not everything is consistently up to the same high standard, but nothing is less than enjoyable and best of all are the two songs which close Schmotime. Recent single “Something to Bang” is the hardest and most immediate song on the album, as well as the most bitter. In it Michaelson is “tired of being a man,” watching his latest conquest undress but only able to think of how it’s “bringing out the worst” in him. The ferocious raging of the music fits his guilty battle with his libido perfectly: he wants to blame his misdeeds on it and be able to dispose of them, but knows that he can’t really abdicate responsibility.
“Treacle” is even more stunning, a completely redemptive finale which sees him play it completely straight for the first time and finally accept things as they are and maybe even find some happiness. After all that’s come before on Schmotime, it certainly feels like he deserves it.
Reviewed by: Iain Forrester
Reviewed on: 2006-05-22