Beer and Pavement

Swearing at Motorists-‘While Laughing, the Joker Tells the Truth’

Posted in Records, Review by SM on October 8, 2014

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After a long break, Swearing at Motorists returned with a Kickstarter campaign in order to release their 8th full-length (sans a singles collection and several EP’s), While Laughing, the Joker Tells the Truth. I had assumed Dave Doughman sailed off into the sunset, landing in Berlin, never to be heard from again. Luckily, I was wrong and this record was funded. Now, what we have in front of us is this new record and an upcoming tour – which I’m hoping has time for Middle Missouri.

While Laughing continues the S@M aesthetic of crunchy guitar licks and emotive lyrical delivery of life’s rawness. I once described the music from this twosome as lying somewhere “on the blue-collar side of lo-fi and the road-weary side of indie” and the description still fits. Although, the production feels like a clear step up from lo-fi, but the sparseness, quiet-loud-quiet dynamic still feels like those older S@M records. And this nostalgia is why I threw money at this Kickstarter – extending my long hit streak with Kickstarter projects reaching their funding goals. I guess I should tell you what I received…

Doughman liked to slip in some filler in his records now and again that were simple, stripped-down ideas of songs with layers of his own voice providing something orchestral lo-fi. “I Don’t Need Anyone” opens the album this way and it pulls you in just before the fully-developed pop groove of “Groundhog Day (Dam the Piper)” kicks in. The hard luck of a Doughman-described relationship makes sense to all of us. You bounce your head to the beat all the way through to the keyboard accompaniment that sound like Ric Ocasek-produced GBV records.

Layered Doughman vocals over simple acoustic guitar – another common feature of a S@M album – comes in as the previous track fades out. “Forever” pleads with his love to tell him anything, “just please don’t use the word ‘forever’.” The sentiment is repeated over and over, helping the listener feel the tension that must have been in the room. A rocker in “Academy Award for Best in a Supporting Role” knocks down the door. As with everything leading up to this point, it does not describe a happy talk between lovers.

“Friend of Mine” is slow and spacious. I always liked how Doughman’s voice – all deep and throaty – brings so much emotion and power to these quiet slo-core moments. The songs picks up its pace a bit as you hear a ring tone in the background. The music really kicks it up a notch and Doughman makes his grand gesture. I feel like a lot of S@M tracks are like either the beginning or end of this song, but here he’s covered a lot of familiar territory in just under 3 minutes.

Another stripped-down acoustic, emotionally-fueled, and hurt song takes over. “Famous Orange Sweathirt” is barely over a minute, but the narrative becomes clear by the end. It’s a lost-in-youth-on-the-run sort of song…until it abruptly ends. One thing that’s done masterfully on this record is the dynamic changes between tracks. This happens again at this point as the slow rocker “Time and Distance.” Narratively, it fits nicely. Whether or not this is intentional is not known, but it seems to look back those youthful days and where he and his love are today.

One thing I think Doughman does better than most songwriters is he can say all that’s needed to be said in a repeated chorus. “I was thinking about drinking, but I don’t have the energy” repeats over and over through “17th Last Cigarette (think’ bout drink in’)” and it tells you all you need to know. The layered vocals, acoustic guitar fiddling, strange keyboard atmospherics in the back… The song is as sad and depressing but somehow comforting as they come.

“Wrote You a Letter” continues with lyrics someone has actually said. “So, I wrote you a letter | A real one, on paper” is something we might say since no one does that anymore. The conversational lyrics Doughman writes have always been the most effective in my mind for both narrative and emotion. Here, he nails that aesthetic once again, much like “Flying Pizza” or “Can’t Help Ourselves.”

“The Darkest September” is a complete change of pace for S@M, at least in my experience. It’s certainly Doughman’s emotive lyrics and vocal delivery, but it’s backed by a simple piano line. The vocals are not layered, but Doughman demonstrates his incredible range – a range that I believe has improved over the years. It’s almost diva-ish how he bounces from low to high notes and back. The lilting delivery is quite striking and nails that feeling you get when you hear songs that just make you close your eyes and shake your head because you know that kind of hurt. It’s a comforting thing, really.

“Great Actress” carries a bit of a theme that’s carried on through this LP. All these songs could be about actresses or just one. I don’t know, but it is curious how actresses and acting come up a lot. This song is huge in terms of a Swearing at Motorist song. The emptiness is filled, in particular with more keyboards. The pace is picked up from the previous couple of tracks. Layered vocals are back. This song is almost hopeful as he says goodbye to his actress girlfriend, or at least that’s how it works in my mind movie.

“I Love You (liar)” features muffled, angry vocals and more aggressive instrumentation. Doughman repeats a series of lies and you’ve heard this story before. “Adjectives” opens with a sparse march and some percussive vocals before evolving into that loose, Doughman delivery, delivering more failed relationship descriptors. “Don’t Want to Dream (About You)” is the typical acoustic song you might picture Doughman putting together on the porch, but there are strings lingering behind. Some of the lyrics suggest he sees a lover (or former lover) in a son. Kids have that effect on us.

“I Likes Your Style” is a lo-fi filler with a surprisingly urgent guitar part underneath those layered, drawn-out vocals. The bluesy and loud “Wasting Your Time” is the last song of every prom where that one couple makes out like there’s no one around in the middle of the dance floor – giving zero fucks.

“It’s Love that Chooses You” is a rather sweet love song that seems somewhat out of place, except that you know that it all hurts so badly because that’s how love works. Again, not totally sure this isn’t about a kid rather than a lover. The sentiment is that we are powerless to avoid love as, well, it chooses you and not the other way around.

I go back and forth on the themes and subjects of this record. From past experiences, Doughman’s songs are about hurt and failed relationships (and the many vices that lead to such disaster), but there’s something even more heartfelt here (if that’s even possible). I wonder what the effect of his parenthood has had on his music. There are clues throughout and they add a certain complexity to some of the material. Either way, this dude feels more than most of us. It makes it okay to get a little pissed or shed a tear when someone so openly and clearly expresses his emotions.

It can be debated which Swearing at Motorist album is the best or which has the best songs, but this record gets my vote as most consistent and containing the most clarity. There’s a happy balance in the production between that lo-fi for which he and anyone from Dayton are known and something more purposeful, proficient. Either way, Doughman gave his Kickstarter investors a deal.

If you couldn’t tell, I am writing this as a fan. Of course, if it sucked ass and my Kickstarter funds felt wasted, I would either express disappointment or not write anything at all. This record is really good. Swearing at Motorists is really good and I think more people should know that so a gifted musician like Dave Doughman doesn’t disappear in Berlin again, leaving us for several years without the fruits of his gift.

If Swearing at Motorists comes to your town (I’m working on getting them here), be sure to see them. At the very least, find some live footage on YouTube. At the very, very least, listen to the catalog and find some way to score a copy of While Laughing, the Joker Tells the Truth. Feel the rock ‘n roll for once. Let them in. I have and will continue.

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One Response

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  1. Reviewing 2014: Music | Beer and Pavement said, on December 28, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    […] there’s the Kickstarted project from Swearing at Motorists. S@M’s Dave Doughman is also a dad. This comes out in some heartbreaking-yet-sweet moments […]


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