Most musicians hate to be categorized, rejecting any attempts to label, contextualize, or otherwise rape their divine muse. Because they are, like, totally unique, they tell anyone who is stupid or polite enough to ask what kind of music they play that it can’t be described. “You just have to listen to it, bro,” they say. “It’s a little bit of everything, all mixed up, with a special flavor all its own.” What these poor dopes won’t admit or don’t realize is that (a) describing yourself as indescribable is the worst cliché in the biz, right next to “emotional roller coaster” in the press-kit hall of shame; and (b) most people won’t fork over cash to hear a band that they know nothing about aside from the fact that its members consider themselves to be extremely special. No, bands require hype, and hype requires talk, and talk requires language, and language requires categories, so the only rational move is to accept the inevitable and cough up a label before some idiot critic does it for you.
Doveman has the label trick down pat. In the press kit accompanying The Acrobat, its debut full-length, the New York-based sextet describes its style as “lamp rock,” “insomnia pop,” and “voice-inside-your-head music.” It’s a nice preemptive strike, but caveat emptor, readers: One listener’s “lamp rock” is another listener’s “mope rock,” or what my friend Bob, a scratchy-vinyl enthusiast, feedback connoisseur, and card-carrying prole, dismisses as “bread-machine music.” In other words, if you consider chronic tinnitus a badge of honor, think Iron + Wine is kinda gay, and never bought into slowcore’s “quiet is the new loud” aesthetic, Doveman is not the band for you.
Not only are most of their songs driven by a banjo — long derided by real rockdudes as the dorkiest instrument known to man — but most of them also feature lots of piano, cornet, brushed drums, and violin, not to mention a choked-up frontman who makes Nick Drake seem like Ethel Merman. With his diffident, uncertainly pitched whisper, pianist/singer Thomas Bartlett sounds as if he’s murmuring through flannel bedsheets, and his cohorts don’t seem to be in any hurry to rouse him. Drowsy and delicate, The Acrobat is a liminal album, hovering over the threshold between sleep and wakefulness, charged with the signal susceptibility that takes hold when consciousness abates. The lyrics are muffled and evocative, the mood melancholy but never desperate: “We walk through fields of light/I could die here in your arms/But I’m not sure you’re worth the sacrifice,” Bartlett sighs on “Honey,” the album’s closest approximation to a love song.
That Doveman’s softer/slower/sadder shtick doesn’t induce catatonia is a testament to the members’ skill in extracting drama from pillowy atmospherics. It’s no surprise, given the band’s pedigree. Although Bartlett is only 23, he’s already done time with Elysian Fields, Mike Doughty, and the tragically underappreciated Chocolate Genius. Banjo player/guitarist Sam Amidon, who founded the ensemble, moonlights in Stars Like Fleas, and the remaining bandmates’ résumés include stints with everyone from Iggy Pop to Gloria Gaynor, Woody Allen, the Lounge Lizards, Bonnie Raitt, and Tom Waits. The result is a gentle hodgepodge of imploded folk, avant-pop, and shoegazer psych, anchored by just enough downtown skronk and found sounds to keep the songs from floating away into the ether.
Occasionally the plodding tempos and funereal arrangements become a bit monotonous, but just as you’re about to nod off, the band tweaks the formula just enough to bring you back. At its best, as on the narcotic, fuzzed-out “Teacup” and the strangely jaunty, vaguely jazzy “Cities,” Doveman soars.