“If you want fun, this album has it. If you want depth, it’s got that, too.” -GOGuest Writer
out of 10
December 21, 2010
I’ll be honest from the get-go — this is a tough one. How do you begin to review an album that, on the one hand, leaves you wholly engaged song by song, effectively fusing hard indie rock with its subtler, more intricate elements, that creates an overarching journey that feels both round and complete; but that, on the other hand, is nothing you feel compelled to come back to? Margolnick’s debut album, Taylorsville, has slipped into that rare but relevant crevice. It is an album that I find to be good, only so long as I am listening to it.
Upon first hearing this multifaceted brain-child of Charlotte-based musician Michael Drake Margolnick, I was blown away to learn that it is the product of one man’s talent. There is a richness to each song, here — layered with acoustics, percussion, electric guitar, even popping his glockenspiel on occasion — that suggests the work of several hands, if not several creative minds. There is variety all over this album, and all over the album, that variety feels seamless. Margolnick folds classic rock tracks like “The Roost” together with softly-mixed songs like “The Order” and “The Tracks,” and manages to make it flow. He finds a happy, Fratellis-style riffing in “The Yard” (the only upbeat instrumental on the album), which will have you jouncing up and down in your seat like you’re on a pride-land safari. He even, at one point, incorporates the melodic percussion of a monastic chant in the song “Intermission,” where the baritone humming creates a sad, militaristic march, a left-right, left-right peripatetic loop that contrasts with the inherent spirituality of the chanting, and is especially powerful when one considers the lyrics: “I really feel so tired of fighting / Oh, take a look inside — I’m lying.”
In other words, the album is not only good; it is diversely good. It is good in the way that full-course meals and painting exhibits and trips around the world are good. It is good because, around every corner, you find something new, and yet that new thing always seems to fit with what came before, adding to it and fulfilling the journey. So I guess the real question is, if the album really is this good, then what is it that’s keeping it from being great?
Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. Part of the problem, I think, has to do with Margolnick’s vocals. They aren’t bad, per se, but they do have that strange, half-warbling trill quality that makes for a shakiness in everything that he sings, as if each word were uncertain, each note debated before it finally pops out. It’s the same semi-whininess that often annoys me with Bono, and occasionally annoys me with Coldplay. But then again, I suppose that I just compared Margolnick to Bono and Coldplay, so you make the judgment. The trilling is more extreme in Margolnick’s case, though. And the constant quavering gives off the sense of not being wholly devoted, and as a result, makes it hard for me to feel wholly devoted, too. My body is always uncertain about giving in.
This stylistic decision works, I suppose, within the context of the music, given that most of the lyrics do possess an anxious, uncertain quality to them. E.g. in “The Order”: “You feel your hands swing, you feel your knees knock / the anticipation of what you can’t ignore / you throw your hands up, you throw your head back / you feel your heart beat, it’s a love attack / oh, girl, you make me feel the way I’ve never felt before.” Or again, in the rapid-fire existential upsurge of “The Ladder”: “We’ll keep climbing until the day we die…I won’t climb, no, no / this ladder to the top to see how high it goes.” So in context, the shakiness works. Aesthetically, though, it does not. Rather, it keeps me at arms-length. It makes me want to grab onto his shoulders to steady him. At times, it’s even a little bit annoying, particularly when he’s in his lower-range register of “Intermission,” and his voice takes on an extra nasally quality reminiscent of (and I mean no ill-will here, it’s just what I thought of) Mr. Mackey, the Parker-voiced guidance-councilor from South Park. The similarity is uncanny. So even though the songs are gorgeously compiled and written and played, there is, I think, a lyrical chink in their musical armor, a minor but perpetual tremor that keeps me from wanting to come back to them.
On the up side, though, I will say that what Michael Drake does truly beautifully is his ability to tell stories through his songs. Each track has its own growth and development, whether through the compounded instrumental layers of “The Alley” — from plucked electric, to added acoustic, to drums and then glockenspiel — or the storybook nature of his lyrics in “The Roost”: “The chief demands you kiss his ring / when all the while he is no king…I’m in love with the king’s daughter, I’m in love with the king’s daughter / she’s in love with a diamond ring, she’ll sell her heart for anything.” These tracks build and progress. In “The Ladder,” the whole rhythm and intensity is an upward swing, climbing in the way that only ladders will let you. In “The Tracks,” the last song on the album, Margolnick travels through seven minutes of notes that are so seamless and gradual that you feel like hardly any time has passed at all, dipping into the savory sounds of regret — the music slow but pounding, with long notes held for four counts at a time while a drum beats monotonous underneath. Everywhere you look on this album, there is something being told. You just have to listen to the story.
If you want fun, this album has it. If you want depth, it’s got that, too. It’s got songs to rock out to in “The Roost” and songs to meditate to in “The Tracks.” Everything on here has an arc, never unidirectional or disconnected. But for some reason, it just wasn’t my subjective cup of tea. I recognize all the good things that it’s doing, as well as all the many talents that Margolnick has and, I’m sure, will continue to display in the future. And hopefully, I’ve got some of those good things across. But for now, for me, it is simply an album that is only as good for as long as I am listening to it. The problem is, for the most part, I find myself choosing not to.