Some artists sneak up on you from out of the haze of a purple dusk, tap you on the shoulder and hand you a precious box.
Tiny Television’s Mission Statement (Magnolia Records, 2009) is that box, a bejeweled wonder full of interesting compartments holding secret, shiny surprises that reveal themselves with each new opening.
From the outset, frontman Jeremy D’Antonio’s sparse and desolate first track, “Murder Ballad,” lets you know where he and the band are coming from on their full-length debut, released earlier this month. The dobro is practically desert-sunbleached and raw, with a fading drum/heartbeat at song’s end. There are some absolutely wonderful moments to follow.
“Carolina,” the album’s second track, would have been the obvious choice for an opener, with its catchy melody and near-Neil-Diamondesque title — but that would be too easy. Tiny Television, if anything, seems to do the unexpected, and they pull it off masterfully. They seem at once old and new, and there is not a single cliche on the entire album.
The true test of a great album is in repeated listenings. I played this nearly every day for two weeks and never tired of it, and even discovered lyrical and instrumental nuances I hadn’t heard before. It’s an album of continuous discoveries — the multi-compartmental box remains a fitting metaphor. “C.R.E.A.M.” is a perfect example: D’Antonio weaves extremely deft poetic images about being endlessly connected to someone else. He sings, “Sit back sugar, let your hair down, honey, I took care of the cream. I sold my guitar at an interstate bar just to buy you a ring.” Cream becomes an acronym (listen to the song and discover for yourself; it took me days to figure it out) as well as the sweet addition to life’s cup of tea.
The chugging skiffle-beat of “Hallelujah” is like a train in the night heading home, taking the singer to where he really belongs, while “Be With Me” is a deceptively simple shuffle, D’Antonio’s deep baritone “sailing around the key of C” all the while proclaiming he’s no sailor. He has a gift for original turn of phrase, his self-proclaimed “six string artillery” and it’s a joy to hear.
“16th & Valencia” begins with a soft Spanish guitar and then quickly jumps to an uptempo tune of feverish delirium, a song worthy of Dylan himself. Probably my favorite is “Rose Colored Sunsets,” a haunting tale of temptation backed by keyboardist James Han’s swirling yet grounded Hammond B3 organ and Fender Rhodes, featured prominently on the album. My only regret is that this song is too short.
“How Long” melds the synthetic (heartbreaking synthesizer) with the organic (pedal steel guitar) as well as vocals from the wonderful and talented Jess DiNicola, primary backup singer for the album. Additionally, Pam Aranoff provides sultry vocals on “Carolina,” “Be With Me,” “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Murder Ballad.”
All of D’Antonio’s ten original songs are rendered beautifully by the other members of Tiny Televison, including Dave Zirbel (pedal steel, dobro, electric guitar), Jonathan Rackstang (bass, double bass), and Joshua Trinidad (flugelhorn, trumpet). They posses a relaxed maturity, a quiet poise found only in musicians at the top of their game and at the height of their powers. The result is a steady and exciting work that never falters. The only misstep I noticed was on the final track, “Intro to This Movie,” which is beautifully rendered and haunting, but contains an unnecessary and rather intrusive backward masked guitar laid over D’Antonio’s piano and guitar. The song would be gorgeous enough without it.
In my opinion, Mission Statement comes in under the wire as one of the best albums of 2009.
Check for upcoming tour dates and sample the entire album on the band’s website, TinyTele.