By Thomas Bartlett
Daily Download: "Iron Woman," Devin Davis
"Iron Woman," the opening track of Devin Davis' debut record "Lonely People of the World, Unite!," is a ragged, invigorating, somewhat anarchic two-minute rock song, the vocals delivered with Springsteenian gusto and grit, and with an unhinged sax solo snuck in to rough things up further. The whole record is mightily impressive, equal parts tight songcraft and undisciplined emotional fervor, recorded nearly single-handedly by Davis over a period of a few years. Also available for free download, "Turtle and the Flightless Bird" and "Deserted Eyeland."
Devin Davis - "Lonely People of the World, Unite!"
4/5 out of 5 stars
by Tim Sendra
Devin Davis spent two years crafting in the studio Lonely People of the World, Unite!, playing just about all the instruments himself as well as writing and producing. All that time and solitary effort has paid off in a big way because this is the kind of guitar pop record that comes out of nowhere and leaves your jaw scraping the floor in amazement, sort of like the New Pornographers' or Sloan's classic One Chord to Another self-titled debut. Davis's songs are an exciting blend of chamber pop (horns, keyboards, lush layers of acoustic guitars), power pop (hard hitting electric guitars, jumpy rhythms, vocal harmonies) and classic 60's pop (glimpses of the influence of the Kinks, the Small Faces and pop-psych bands like the Move or the Easybeats.
Best of all they are suffused with an alarming amount of energy with Davis's slightly geeky voice straining at the seams, the guitars careening wildly and the chords and words flashing by at a blinding pace. Not too many bands these days are writing songs as hook filled and alive as "Iron Woman," "Sandie" or "Moon Over Shark City" or as sweetly innocent and melodic as the quieter songs on the record like "Deserted Eyeland," "Giant Spiders" or "The Choir Invincible". Davis's production touch is remarkably assured as well. He knows just when to cut the dynamics or jump them up a notch and the record flows like an exhilarating live set.
The whole record is filled with moments of head-nodding agreement with his choices, hilarious lyrics and moments of audacity (like when he samples the Monkees' theme song ("we're the young generation and we've got nothing to say") in the boy band dissing "Transcedental Sports Anthem", drops a perfectly blaring E- Street meets Archie Shepp sax solo into "Iron Woman" or hits the accelerator halfway through the Kinks-y barrelhouse piano rocker "Paratroopers with Amnesia" leaving your heart doing crazed jumping jacks.
Lonely People of the World, Unite! is a small-scale triumph and Devin Davis has left competition in the dust. There are few guitar pop records of the last 20 years that are as exciting, well- constructed or memorable than this.
THE CHICAGO READER
(November 26, 2004)
DEVIN DAVIS Lonely People of the World, Unite! | Mousse
By Bob Mehr
Iowa native Davis is best known -- if he's known at all -- as leader of the 90s college-rock outfit Irving and its offshoot Irving Philharmonic, a band firmly entrenched in the Sonic Youth/Dinosaur Jr camp. For Lonely People of the World, Unite! -- his first album since moving to Chicago in 1999 -- he makes an ambitious transition. Davis plays most of the instruments himself (including trombone, piano, and theremin in addition to guitar, bass, and drums), and the album showcases his penchant for the big-tableau production, feedback-laden hooks, and winking wordplay associated with arena-friendly power poppers like Superdrag and Weezer. The album launches with the brass-fueled bubblegum fuzz of "Iron Woman" and "When I Turn Ninety-Nine," then heads off in manifold directions; it shifts from Kinks-style cleverness ("Giant Spiders") to 50s-flavored barrelhouse piano ("Paratrooper With Amnesia") to a funereal organ ballad ("The Choir Invisible") before closing with the sweeping geek soul of "Deserted Eyeland." Not a duff track in the bunch.
THE CHICAGO DAILY HERALD
"Best of 2004 Edition" (Dec 30, 2004)
The best album you didn't hear this year:
DEVIN DAVIS BRINGS POP PERFECTION
By Mark Guarino
Bedroom pop records are, by their definition, personal labors of love made by very strange people. After all, you can't get more intimate than the music you make in the same place you sleep. So it takes someone with a carnival spinning in their head, consuming their waking and sleeping hours, who needs to, at all cost, figure out what instruments are needed, what keys to put them in, what lyrics to keep and what to toss, how the songs should be sequenced and what would make the perfect cover.
A fact of life that makes bedroom pop records special is that they are not made by the famous. The famous can try to imitate an unknown bedroom pop auteur like Devin Davis, but they would fail. They wouldn't have the patience or the solitary stamina it takes to follow a personal obsession when the world isn't waiting for it or even cares that it exists.
Davis, a 29-year-old songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, quietly released his first album, "Lonely People of the World, Unite!" (Mousse), this year and it is a genuine knockout from front to back with zero filler.
Recorded over three years in a coachhouse located in Chicago's Bucktown area with no running water, it is a meticulously crafted pop album that is warm around the edges, its insides filled with relentlessly catchy tunes, miniature moments that sparkle to life and a momentum that whips things together in a race toward the finish.
As one of the year's more immediate pop pleasures, it's on a very short list.
Following the blueprint of big tableau albums from the Beatles "White Album" to the Kinks' "Village Green Preservation Society" to Wilco's "Summerteeth," "Unite!" is a mishmash of moods and song styles with a common thread running between misfit despondency and nonsense euphoria.
Davis spent most of his free time carving down what he had into a 35-minute album. He played most instruments himself - guitars, drums, horns, organ and more -partly out of necessity. New to Chicago, he didn't know any other musicians. The isolation became one of the album's themes.
"It was pretty tough the first couple of years," he said. "There's just this kind of overwhelming feeling of everybody being just anonymous, just passing through. It seemed like a funny paradox that if lonely people united, there wouldn't be lonely people anymore. I wanted it to be funny, but still have a sincerity to it."
The songs shift from fuzzed-out rock stomps ("Transcendental Sports Anthem," "Iron Woman'), acoustic psychedelics ("Sandie"), barrelhouse piano country ("Paratrooper With Amnesia") and the soaring pop anthem "Giant Spiders," with lyrics imagining the possibility of romance during nuclear Armageddon. Among the atmospherics Davis layers throughout the album are fireworks recorded from not one, but two different Fourth of July celebrations in Grant Park. Turns out Davis is a fireworks enthusiast, having recorded them in Chicago and elsewhere for years.
"I just like the sound," he said. "And because it happens once a year ... it's like a show. During the fireworks, everybody cheers. In a sense they're celebrating war and loss."
In the past era, when album-length statements were in vogue, it is easily conceivable that "Unite!" would immediately find an audience. Davis admits he is most comfortable in the analog era where singers didn't use auto tuning to correct imperfections, instruments weren't recorded so coldly, albums didn't run 70 minutes just to fill up a CD and, maybe most importantly, lyrics mattered.
Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin were his triumvirate as a kid growing up in Clinton, Iowa. Because his parents - a symphony chorus singer and a college professor - only had the early Beatles albums, he got around to discovering landmark albums like "Abbey Road" only recently.
"The Beatles were the only contemporary band I liked in the '90s," he said.
After his father took a job in Jacksonville, Fla., Davis enrolled as a history major at the University of Florida, but soon dropped out to follow his dream of having his own band to play with. He moved to Chicago soon after and got a job at a recording studio, where he recorded bits of "Unite!" at night.
That early isolation is a faint memory now that he assembled a seven-member band, including a full horn section.
"It validated the move," he said. "Having a band was such impossibility. It almost felt like it would never happen. Now it's a joy."
He hired a manager to promote the record to labels and radio and hopes to tour in late winter. Even though it was written years before, the music on "Unite!" best describes his current mood.
"There's happy songs and sad songs, but I really wanted the songs to sound upbeat," he said. "Upbeat, even if you realize later it's depressing."
Devin Davis Lonely People of the World, Unite! [Mousse; 2005] Rating: 7.2
This power-popping ode to loneliness is the one-man-band opus most basement-dwelling indie rock nerds think they could make if they felt like it. Mop-topped and horn-rimmed, Chicago by-way-of Florida singer Devin Davis is ambitious, but it's not necessarily his nasty trombone or theremin chops that make his debut solo album better than your local mom-and-pop clerk's self-described "Bolan meets Pollard" pop masterpiece. Instead, it's his knowing way around a walloping chorus and his welcome sense of restraint and economy that allow said hooks to live for many hum-worthy listens.
A loosely conceptual record, Lonely People of the World, Unite! sees Davis embodying a varied cast of, well, lonely people-- or, as it happens, lonely ghosts or lonely turtles. "Iron Woman" doubles as the record's seafaring jumping-off point and its most distinguishable, immediate moment. "It's hard to live in a basement and not get carried away," sings Davis on the Guided By Springsteen stomper. This lone wolf mostly takes his own advice to heart. Recording the vast majority of the album by himself, Davis doesn't often succumb to vain overindulgence and his piled-on retro-instrumentation punches up more than it bogs down.
The singer's limited yelp hinders some songs from reaching Kinks-esque fantasia, but on "Turtle and the Flightless Bird", Davis' vulnerability matches his hard-shelled counterpart's grounded hopefulness. The track finds the title pair in an unlikely partnership, and it reads like a heartbreaking fable.
Davis' less quirky, more obviously derivative endeavors fall flat. "Moon Over Shark City" isn't as much homage to Bowie's "Suffragette City" as an inexcusable copy-- all the way down to the pounding piano and "woo-hoo" back-ups. And the power ballad "Sandie" slips under its own well-worn bombast.
The exclamation point at the end of this album's title is a testament to Davis' sense of mutual togetherness. Just as he looked to organs, drums, and gongs to quell his own isolation in a new city, many of the characters in his tales of woe are buoyed by the songwriter's optimism. Loneliness has rarely sounded so celebratory or inviting.
DEVIN DAVIS Lonely People of the World, Unite! | Mousse
By Clayton Purdom
You know the type:
Slouching in with a forlorn glance at the world, reeking of an acute resignation so profound that his presence transforms his every location into an Ed Hopper tableau. Wandering into a gas station at 11:40 at night, tie loosened after a night of serving seafood, eyes glazed, blearily buying a lighter and a microwaveable burrito. Sitting bored at a deli for a late lunch. Driving through the sleet unblinking, shoveling laundry from washer to cart, renting a DVD. Sleepwalking, staring, mowing the lawn — always alone.
This guy has an anthem, whether he knows it or not. Eleven anthems, in fact, thanks to some guy from Chi-town (via Florida) named Devin Davis who has single-handedly written, recorded, performed and produced a debut album--Lonely People of the World, Unite!--of almost unprecedented quality and depth of thought. Think Pinkerton without the pain, or Funeral if it was about loneliness instead of loss. Davis crams enough reckless enthusiasm, pop smarts, and shit-hot Bowie rock’n’roll into Unite's 36 minute runtime to make Augie March look like a jam band.
Unite dwells in that first album twilight that actually makes you physically, tangibly excited about what a given artist might be able to accomplish. Remember Turn on the Bright Lights, Is This It, Original Pirate Material? Remember the last time you had to play an album for all of your friends? And remember how if they didn’t like it you didn’t want to be friends with them anymore? This is that album, fresh out of nowhere for the year 2005. You’re welcome.
“Iron Woman” is an unfailingly great first track, a searing, air in the hair slammer with a chorus like a steel trap; it’s two perfect minutes, easily as good an opener as “Le Garage” or “Caring is Creepy.” “Turtle and the Flightless Bird” is a fable of genuinely touching earnestness, anchored by the type of drunken shout-along chorus that makes you nostalgic for the absolute present, for the moment you’re listening to the song. The Counting Crows have been trying to hit this note for like a decade now, and Davis perfects it on his first try.
This isn’t the only time Davis does this trick. “Moon Over Shark City” starts on the riff that the Kings of Leon have been grasping for for two albums, and it bursts into a coke-binge freak-out chorus that the Mooney Suzuki only achieves live. “Transcendental Sports Anthem” has more cock-rock megaphone bombast than anything on Permission To Land. The brothers Gallagher will kill each other before they write a ballad like “Sandie.” But while Davis is destroying the competition, he’s also paying homage to the Untouchables: before it becomes a New York Dolls freak-out, “Paratrooper with Amnesia” is a maudlin ragtime crooner, and a deadringer for White Album-era McCartney.
And there’s really no precedent for “Cannons At The Courthouse”, which goes from rainy, gorgeous Blonde on Blonde patter to fuzzed-out Neutral Milk Hotel bliss rawk and (heart-breakingly) back before melting in a vintage psych-rock haze. Ditto for the phenomenal “Giant Spiders”, the album’s centerpiece (craftily buried near the end), built around a Pete Townshend head-smasher of a riff. This song finally seizes a mood hinted at earlier on the album, a mood so emotionally complex as to be unnamed; how’s “bonecrushingly hopeful yet resigned” sound?
I’m running out of superlatives, adjectives and interesting comparisons at this point, and you’re running out of patience for my boundless enthusiasm, but that’s okay: in the end this album is reminiscent of only itself, a conceptual masterstroke (yes, I said "masterstroke") of absurd listenability and intellectual captivation. Davis’ surreal lyrics stand with one foot in the grippingly real (“Man, I don’t ever want to move back here again”) and the other firmly planted in the absurd: I’ll let the line “What happened to the rhino I know?” speak for itself.
He’s at his best when these two worlds collide, like when a forlorn protagonist looks up in “Transcendental Sports Anthem” and sees “the flocks of boy bands flying by, headed down south to Orlando for the winter.” The album’s predominant theme presents itself at an almost subconscious level, a patchwork of odd adjectives and half-dreamed fragments that ultimately forms a sad vignette, an intentionally unfunny joke told by a very lonely person. (I mean, he was writing songs this good and he still had to play all the instruments himself?)
But the music tells a different story altogether, one of a newfound, hard-won hope. That exclamation point in the title is there for a reason, and when you listen to this album you’ll know why. It would be a shame for it to slip through the cracks, because to some ears it’s an early contender for year-end glory, and, hell, who knows how long it may hold up after that. And so what if that first paragraph was culled from the last two months of my life; this album’s personal relevance to me is the sole seed of doubt causing me not to rate this album as highly as every cell in my brain screams for me to. But you didn’t have to watch someone die to love Funeral. Unite! is a rallying cry, and Davis performs like his life depended on it. In a way, it probably did.
By Janet Steen
Friday, April 27, 2012
I FEEL SO awfully tired sometimes driving through Kingston, New York. I’m talking about the strip-mall area in particular, that stretch of franchise after franchise that somehow always makes me feel completely disenfranchised. Every American with half a pulse knows this particular ennui. The bleary, arrhythmic stopping at red lights, absently looking out the window at Baby Depot, Staples, Dress Barn. Dress Barn: two words in the English language that should never have been put together. Same for Baby Depot. I want humanity to do better than this.
On a flatlined afternoon recently in this area I was revived when I put a CD in the car stereo. It was a blind shot, a record that had been sent by a friend (thank you, Camden Joy), with a $1.99 sticker on it from a used record store. Devin Davis’s Lonely People of the World, Unite! from 2005. Never heard of him.
“It’s hard to live in a basement and not get carried away….” he starts off in the first song. I interpret this to be Devin himself toiling obsessively underground on his record, and I recognize this feeling, the euphoria of getting lost in one’s own world of make-believe. He sounds on the edge of spilling over into too much emotion; I know this feeling too. I have found a kindred soul on a disconnected day, just what his album title exhorted me to do.
I check the credits on the sleeve of the CD. Devin is one of these guys who plays everything himself—guitar, drums, bass, vocals, saxophone, organ, piano, theremin, trumpet, trombone, giant gong. The record is a mix of guitar-fuzz rock (I hear a young Stephen Malkmus and also David Bowie in there) and slow songs of extreme melancholy. Some of the lyrics are deliriously impressionistic: “Keep on watching your movies/on the backs of your eyelids/that we shot on abandoned lots/that we found back when we were kids….” Others are perfectly direct: “Awake through the sound of the sad city sleeping/I turned around to find out who was speaking/but there was no one there.” The song “Sandie” is so pretty and lingering it sounds like something I was waiting a long time to hear. His voice breaks a lot. It’s a good voice but a little messy. On a couple songs the melodies and chord changes put me in mind of Elliott Smith, another guy who could do it all “from a basement on the hill.”
So what do I do after falling for his record? I find him on Facebook, of course. Because in this day and age we expect everyone to be just a friend request away, even if they live, in Davis’s case, all the way in Chicago and have no idea who I am. I write and ask him when his second record is coming out. From the looks of his website he has been working on this second record for years. He has written something on his site about hoping it’ll be out for the holidays, but I can’t figure out which holiday of which year. A day later he writes back a friendly message and says he wishes he knew when it was coming out but he just can’t say for sure. I send another message and tell him I may want to write something about the first record, give him my magazine credentials, and ask him a few more questions, about finding his place as an artist, about obsessiveness. For days I don’t hear back from him. I assume either he has lost his Internet connection or he didn’t like my questions. Or maybe he just didn’t want to drain the mystery out of his art by talking about it. (Unpleasant sucking noise here.)
So I’m left to commune only with the music, not the person, which I figure is probably for the best. Why did I need Devin the person anyway? Devin may have disappointed me. Instead I can cobble together a persona that floats to me from the songs combined with my own vision of who Devin Davis might be, or who I would like him to be.
In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” John Updike once politely complained about the craving in people to find out more about artists through reading interviews with them: “In some ways I do resist and resent the tendency to milk people through interviews to get them to betray or reveal…the real John Updike, let’s say, when the real John Updike has been trying to show the real John Updike in his writing all these years.”
And what do I want the real Devin to be? Perhaps a little awkward, not too at home in the world, not arrogant, a little tortured. A misfit, as juvenile as that sounds. I even ask him this—do you consider yourself a misfit?—which sounds sort of idiotic. But there are certainly clues that this may have some truth to it. On his Facebook page one day he posts: “I think the stork delivered me to the wrong universe.” And on the record, well, the speaker in the last song ends up on a “deserted eyeland.” Actually, in that song we’re all there on a deserted eyeland.
In a wonderful interview back in 1992 with Yoko Ono, who as we all know did not fit in very well with one particular club, the writer and composer Kyle Gann quoted Ono on the subject of belonging: “There were always people who felt [what I did] was very Fluxus, or that [it] was not Fluxus. Or, that’s not rock. Or, what I thought was poetry, no, that’s more like prose. Something maybe doesn’t fit, but that part is me. You always end up being yourself.”
If you’re lucky, that is. It can be a lonely business being yourself, but consider the alternative. Even in these days of DIY home recordings, some musicians still sound like they’re trying to be something they’re not. Not Devin, though. Even with all the influences he’s mining, he sounds heartbreakingly like himself the whole way through, or at least he sounds like what I think he is.
Just as I’m about to give up on hearing from him, a message appears, a beautifully articulated missive carefully contemplating the things I had asked him. Is he a misfit? He actually sends me two dictionary definitions of the word—I like his attention to detail—because he had to really think about whether that was the right term for him. They sound like descriptions of a sociopath, so he qualifies things: “Maybe I’m a ‘functioning misfit.’ I mean, I have a nine-to-five job, I have never been arrested. I don’t talk to myself on the train or walk around shaking my fist at the empty sky.” Or perhaps he’s more accurately a “loner,” he says, which explains the labor-intensive recording process of laying down every track himself. “I think I have always had an obsession with figuring out how everything works. I definitely think that slows down my productivity….When I listen to something off of Lonely People of the World, Unite! after not listening to it for a long time, I don’t necessarily notice a particular drum fill, for example. But at the time I was recording the song, the drum fill was a life and death matter.”
He goes on, “I’ve always said that I have this little bell that goes off when something is ‘done,’ when it says what I want it to say, when it sparkles (to me). I remember when I knew that Lonely People was done.” As for the new songs, he says, “I hope I hear that bell ringing soon.”
He is obsessive, thoughtful, humble. I have not been disappointed—not one bit. I want to take him out for an ice-cream sundae in Chicago, if I ever get to Chicago.
“At times with this new album,” he writes, “I have felt like I was trying to look at the Great Pyramid through a microscope, grain of sand by grain of sand. It is my great ongoing personal battle to try to relax the scrutiny I have for all of the individual parts being ‘just right’ and to let the big picture reveal itself.”
It’s an exquisite description for so many things—for just, well, the process of learning to be oneself. Thank you, Devin. I’m glad I asked.