Twenty years ago I was entirely ready to leave home, although entirely unprepared to do so. One thing I knew was which of my parent’s books and records I would take with me. I couldn’t simply claim my mother’s Herman Hesse novels to pad a shelf to impress girls, as I assumed they would, but if I had read them and expressed enthusiasm they were mine. So I read Siddhartha and I listened to a lot of Cat Stevens records. And that’s how I came to read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, based on its humorous title (borrowed from Swift) and its Mort Drucker-ish cover. Oh, we had paperback then! and I that was one I wanted on my shelf.
The novel was published more than a decade after Toole took his own life after its rejection. His mother found a carbon copy in his belongings (the original manuscript remains lost) and spent years pursuing its publication — when finally put to ink, A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and remains not merely a cult favorite but a genuine classic of American literature. Walker Percy, a Loyola University professor who helped Thelma Toole push her son’s book on publishers, wrote in the introduction:
… I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.
Like Percy, I read Dunces laughing, shaking my head in wonderment. How could its magic have been unrecognized? And reaching the last page … how could it end? It was the only time in my life I finished a book and I didn’t want it to end.
There are a number of records we’ve been known to flip back to the beginning after the end of side B. Spider John & Willie Murphy’s Running, Jumping, Standing Still, for instance. One particular favorite around here over the past few years has been Songs to Love and Die To, the first album by Southside Desire. Two years ago the band approached us about carrying it exclusively for the first month, and they said some of the nicest things about the record shop in an interview for the City Pages‘ music blog Gimme Noise (here). Our first listen to the album might have been a little like Percy’s response to the unpublished novel a mourning mother had been haranguing him with, incredulous: surely it’s not this good.
It is and we wore out a copy that winter, and chose it as our favorite album of the year, although it went heartbreakingly unnoticed by most local music media. While we thought “When I Was Your Queen” was a natural radio hit, we hardly heard it on the air.
Songs to Love and Die To left listeners with a story yet untold, just as John Kennedy Toole had with his novel. A listener couldn’t help but wish there were just a little more when the bass walks aways just as it had arrived at the end of “The Ballad of a Flickering Flame,” a classic torcher in which Devitt speculates on life and death with striking candor. If you ask us (although no one has), this song alone should have merited Marvel Devitt as one of the best young songwriters in the Twin Cities. You should give it a listen, along with the whole album, here.
from the end of our days til the birth of the suns
our particles wanted to turn into one
and the birds will keep singing and the trees will still grow
and i’lll hold you forever, that’s all i know
Southside Desire’s story is essential to the band’s sound: a group of south Minneapolis kids who grew up together, playing in a succession of bands that didn’t ‘make it.’ The bassist who opens and closes Songs to Love and Die To is Devitt’s husband (and, full disclosure, an employee here at Hymie’s Records) — so when she speculates on “mak[ing] one together” in this last song from their first album, it’s very real. They’re expecting their first next month. “Ballad of a Flickering Flame” could easily have turned into a much darker piece of music, something like the Cowboy Junkies’ “To Love is to Bury,” but instead Devitt focuses on the precious time we have, in this case our heads safely rested on a shoulder.
The band is back with a new album after two years of recording and launching a successful record label, Piñata Records, which has a staggering six new releases in 2014. They’ve shot some great videos (here’s the latest) rehearsed their way to more than merely a reliable live set, but one you wouldn’t want to miss.
Southside Desire approaches the same themes as the debut album (loving, leaving, dying) through more sophisticated arrangements without losing their appealing blend of old fashioned rhythm & blues, power pop and punk rock. In fact, in a lot of ways it makes us think of those second and third albums by new wave-y bands coming into their own — Get Happy!!!, All Mod Cons, Plastic Letters, those sort of albums.
You can hear the entire album for yourself on their bandcamp page here. It opens with “Four Broken Souls,” a song which pushes the boundaries of their further than any other into the same new wave/disco territory Pennyroyal tapped in our favorite song of last year, “Record Machine.” Everything about this song works well, especially guitarist Paul Puelo’s performance which has become more prominent as the band has expanded its sound. The dynamic opening establishes high expectations, but the album doesn’t disappoint — especially Devitt, who delivers with all the dexterity and dignity of a genuine pop music diva.
What we’ve come to love about the Piñata Records approach, which includes bands like Black Diet, Narco States and Mystery Date, is that its not a rehash of something we’ve already heard as much as a fresh approach to the familiar. They’re giving new life to power pop, garage rock and good old fashioned soul music. Southside Desire ties them all together, even shades of sixties girl pop and the singer-songwriter expressions of the seventies, where Devitt is accompanied by piano and vocal arrangements on “Taking Time.”
On either side of that song are solid single we hope to hear on the radio. “The Heat” sounds a little smokier than the tune they released on a split single with Black Diet last year, “Casualty of Love.” Puelo and fellow backers Trevor Engelbrektson and Damien Tank sounding so surely like the Stax rhythm section (eg the MGs) one can’t help but tap a foot or nod a head.
Most of the songs have rich back stories the listener has to discern from context, which makes them all the more interesting each listen — none of them seem like happy stories. The sugar-sweet artwork on the album, by singer Joy Spika, hides the heartbreak-heavy themes throughout the songs, just as the band’s bright sound often has. Besides the far heavier production of “Four Broken Souls,” the other stylistic change is their increased inclusion of keyboards. “Taking Time,” Devitt’s piano ballad, is the simplest arrangement they’ve recorded yet but one of their very best songs. It might be the first time we’ve heard the gentlemen’s voices, also, although they’re still surely in the background.
This album exceeds their debut in every way — it’s that next chapter we wanted each time we flipped Songs to Love and Die To back to the beginning. On the last track Devitt sings, “We are saving for the things dreams cost / the work is never done.” It may be so, but it seems to us the work is paying off. The insights into love and loss in Devitt’s songs are sharper, the band’s backing better. Southside Desire is the kind of record you can listen to several times, discovering something with each passing, and it’s become a favorite around here this fall.
Southside Desire’s record release show for their self-titled second album is this Wednesday at the 7th Street Entry. Details here.