Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lives of quiet desperation

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

A lot can happen in five years. Children go from being born to being dropped off for their first day of school. Countries are invaded. Even presidents can come and go. A lot can happen.

It's been that long since American Mars released its last album, No City Fun — and that's long enough for the elegant, trend-defying Detroit roots rockers to have survived some hefty changes. Yes, bassist Garth Girard was diagnosed with cancer, fought it and beat it during that time. But Western Sides is an explosion of a different kind of pent-up experience — that is, the everyday kind made up of the growth, death, boredom, discovery and everything else that falls between those low-key ecstasies and decay that make up an ordinary life.

"Ordinary," of course, is a perspective, and not one that lead singer and songwriter Thomas Trimble happens to share with, um, ordinary people. In Trimble's songs, the concerns of middle age and middle class come across like epic tribulations of biblical proportion. His lyric sheet is a catalog of observations on which the mild is writ large and peppered with Old Testament parlance. Heels are bruised; dirty hotel rooms smell like sin; and characters say things like, "God is getting thin."

It's a particular, dirty brand of Americana that's literate, dimly lit and darkly romantic. In terms of sheer scope, there are similarities to Detroit's other Faulknerian rock band, Blanche (American Mars' multi-instrumentalist David Feeny does double-duty in both groups). But unlike Blanche's Dan Miller, whose stage persona hovers on the verge of a wink, Trimble sells it straight and sober. It's plain-faced theatricality. If that sounds pretentious, it's not. And the reason Trimble can get away with it without sounding over-earnest, and can deliver so many clever, perfectly rhymed couplets without sounding pat, is because Trimble and the band seem convinced of everything they sing. Every second of Western Sides feels backed with belief.

With Western Sides trading in so much darkness, you wouldn't be wrong for thinking this band ought to change its name to American Gothic. But then Trimble sings lines like "Sometimes I get so cold/Feel like my blood is gonna freeze/I sit home with the fire, the Boss, and the Dirty Three/Stare into the flame/For the hottest part/I say her name/A whisper in the dark" — and the name American Mars makes a little more sense. A simple thing like domesticity begins to look like a dangerous, alien landscape. So in Trimble's universe, America is like Mars.

Songs like "Anna Marie" and "Make it Up" strike the odd imbalance between one who both fears complacency and worries that everything is utterly unstable. "People like us just don't go out and dance anymore/Maybe we're tired, maybe we're scared, maybe it's something more," Trimble sings on the latter. "Fading Away" and "Who Here" (on which Trimble sings "When the world fights fire with fire/You were talking about something higher") both reflect a weary spirituality that the entire record is submerged in.

That spirituality is especially evident in the thunderous rhythm section of Girard and drummer Charlie Koltak, who lend an anthemic quality to even the most modest tunes, and in the Daniel Lanois-esque smear of reverb and pedal steel coating everything, almost like the band's own personal symbol of transcendence. And transcendence is the operative word here. With all that biblical imagery — not to mention the band's persistence through a decade in a city that favored trends — American Mars seems, more than anything, obsessed with things that last.

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