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A for Effortless 

Wednesday, Mar 15 2000
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Right now is a good time for average joes. The Internet makes irrelevant all guides that once guarded the gates of culture; magazines like Maxim and Details fulfill lowest-common-denominator desires; in academia, whiteness studies is an emerging discipline; and musicians, especially in the rock realm, have shrugged off the albatross of artistic integrity with, well, a shrug. Bands like Filter, Savage Garden and Sugar Ray present an interchangeable array of listless hooks, beats that might have come factory-programmed and sentiments as shallow as a junior high crush. It‘s hip-pop for the post-BritneyBackstreet set, and beyond the fact that Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath is what many ladies (and boys) might call a nice catch, these groups make Journey and Loverboy seem iconoclastic. Up until now the best of the bunch has been Smash Mouth, who -- while wearing plainness like a medal -- at least attempt to rise above aggressive mediocrity with a few nods to classic ‘60s pop. It is with this somewhat tepid buildup that I present you with Bristol, England’s Day One, the new kings of average. a

A duo of Phelim Byrne and Donni Hardwidge, Day One assume their crowns with an uncharacteristic Big Statement. They open their debut -- Ordinary Man, of course -- with “Waiting for a Break,” a slacker anthem that deserves a place alongside the work of Beck and Pavement in the way it captures Gen X‘s characteristic crankiness, in this case our less than compelling, near ubiquitous ennui. It’s not an ennui we embrace because we think the world is doomed or that life lacks vitality, but because -- oh no -- pop-cultural adulation may elude us. The track, which skips along on a chorus of “demdoot d-den-d-dpt [pause] doot” -- simpler and catchier than you‘d expect -- ought to be the theme song for the world’s urbane would-be‘s, could-be’s and shoulda-beens. “He said he was a workerthat suffered from inertiaA real soul searcherthat had no religion,” sings Byrne, whose limited range is made up for by his gift for catchy speak-sing melodies. Tracking the immobility of an indecisive and idle actor-artist-writer (i.e., collects unemployment), Byrne continues, “It‘s a matter of timebefore I get mineYou could call it fateI’m just waiting for my break.”

Where most of Day One‘s competition wallow in the quotidian, targeting audiences they obviously resent, Day One celebrates the failings of this striving class, telling stories that are trite yet poignant, sarcastic and ironic. A vein of self-critique shot through the band’s view of things leavens their commentary: Sure, we‘re all losers, Byrne posits, but hey, it won’t kill us. On songs less painfully revealing than “Waiting for a Break” -- one guesses that Byrne and Hardwidge only recently got theirs -- our narrators score their summer babes: “Love on the Dole” and “Bedroom Dancing” unfold like Irvine Welsh stories, only set in Bristol and with less potent drugs. Beyond those tracks, “Walk Now Talk Now” and “I‘m Doing Fine” are as enthralling as any song about the day-to-day affairs of the poor and innocuous gets. The flip side of “Waiting for a Break,” “Trying Too Hard” details the effect of success and its lack upon the love life of a burgeoning lower-class talent.

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Perhaps it’s that this duo grew up on the wrong side of the class divide in England, a country where class is central to existence, but the group have an obvious affection for their characters‘ foibles. It places them not just head and shoulders above the new field of domestic-issue ho-hum rockers, but in a longer lineage of British acts -- the Kinks, Blur, Pulp -- who have related lessons learned from the wrong side of the tracks. Where those bands’ music often contrasted typical stories with epic rock, Day One‘s slouches along like the handiwork of two residents of a small island nation whose GNP has recently been outpaced by that of Ireland.

Programmer Hardwidge’s music consists of modest soundscapes that seem effortlessly constructed, as if he stumbled into each one of his hooks. Studied effortlessness takes talent, however, and the combination of looped guitars and keys and simple breakbeats is delivered by way of classic Byrdsian pop structures and a noirish trip-hop feel accomplished by supplements of lullaby-sweet jazz sounds (an occasional sax or organ or whatever cross-faded into a hazy blur).

Ordinary Man is a wonderful surprise. It‘s the kind of record that slinks into the room and demands your attention not on the basis of pretentious attitude but on the strength of effect; it’s through this trick of expectation judo that this perfectly modest record is, by all rights, not so ordinary after all.

Reach the writer at alecbemis@brassland.org

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