The Minus 5 - I Don't Know Who I Am:
Let the War Against Music Begin, Vol. 2
By Joe Tangari
|By far the strangest thing I've ever heard the train
conductor announce over the intercom is, "Your attention, please: We're
waiting for a coroner to show up. We'll keep you posted." This happened just
yesterday, in fact-- the commuter train I was riding hit a pedestrian at top
speed, killing him. As it turns out, realizing that the reason your train
hasn't moved for three hours is because someone is dead throws your
annoyance into perspective.
It was in this setting that I became familiar with Scott McCaughey's latest Minus 5 offering, a limited release called I Don't Know Who I Am. Astute fans have probably already noted the parenthetical title, Let the War Against Music Begin, Vol. 2, which, for the initiated, tells most of the album's backstory. These 13 songs are the leftovers from the original sessions for McCaughey's 2001 split LP between his now-defunct power-pop band the Young Fresh Fellows and his ongoing all-star collective The Minus 5 (The Minus 5 half was titled Let the War Against Music Begin)-- not that you'd ever guess they were castoffs to listen to them. I Don't Know Who I Am is easily as strong as the material that made it onto the original album, and in a lot of cases, it's more effective.
McCaughey's Minus 5 albums have always showcased his darker, more experimental side, but this record moves more sharply in that direction than any of the others, including last January's Down with Wilco, focusing almost exclusively on downtempo dirges and supplanting the typical jangle with roomfuls of electronic keyboards. Even so, it's a little surreal listening to a song as bitingly humorous as "Rooting for the Plague" in one ear while craning to hear a conductor quietly discuss cleaning up the rapidly freezing remains of some unfortunate person.
That humor is what makes even McCaughey's darkest work easy to sit through; he always seems a step ahead of any critic who might accuse him of miserablism, and his head is stuffed with bitterly funny stuff like the fantastic childhood memoir "I Don't Want to Fuck Off Anymore", a song that rides a bizarre banjo part that's played almost as if it were a sitar. Over this weird, two-step backing, he offers lines like, "You tried new ways to say it when I was twelve/ like 'leave me alone,' 'go play in traffic,' 'get lost,' and 'go to hell,'" making for one of the most left-field songs he's ever recorded.
Other highlights include the synthstrings-coated ballad "Queen's Head", whose great melody is delivered sans-embellishment by McCaughey's thick, almost Tom Petty-ish tenor. "Tunnel of Lungs" is slow-motion power-pop with a penchant for anatomy metaphors and some nice swelling vocal harmonies on the chorus, while the feedback-tinged dirge of opener "There Is No Music" recalls the broken-down pop of Big Star's Third.
It's entirely possible that my impression of I Don't Know Who I Am is irreparably colored by the strange circumstances under which I came to love it, but I believe it's an arresting album that deserves better than a limited runoff of a couple thousand discs. McCaughey is one of those perennial also-rans that litter the pop landscape, a great songwriter in his own right, but seemingly destined to forever be overshadowed by the other work of his own collaborators (see: Wilco, Peter Buck, The Posies, High Llamas). And who knows? Maybe that's the way he likes it. With a little more pressure and scrutiny, he may not have had the guts to make such a subversively smart record.
-Joe Tangari, February 6th, 2004