The Seximals, Small Songs
An interesting coincidence happened to me the second time I listened to the Seximals’ latest album Small Songs. Right as track five began playing in my car stereo, I noticed in my rearview mirror that a group of motorcyclists had pulled up behind me. The irony here is that the song I was listening to was entitled “I Dreamed About a Motorcycle Crash Last Night.” The chance occurrence of visual aid arriving right as this particular song began, and the song itself, which deals with coping with a sudden death, made me think about the unpredictability of life.
Such is the nature of Small Songs, a record whose tracks betray their album’s namesake by inviting much rumination over life’s heavier subjects. Here Anthony Barilla, the man behind the music, has crafted eight dark, cinematic pop songs that, even in their sunnier moments, still have a few clouds on the horizon.
Before Barilla moved from Houston to Kosovo, he served as music director for the now-defunct theater group Infernal Bridegroom Productions, experience that is evident as Small Songs‘ soundscapes are lush and layered and its instrumentation varied. Case in point is second track “When The Lights Go Out.” Beginning with an ominous, whiny clarinet and clattering percussion, the song quickly evolves into a danceable affair reminiscent of Dntel, with its programmed beats and bouncing bassline. When Barilla sings, “Ooh, I get a bad, bad feeling / When I’m stumbling around in the dark just the best that I can,” it’s hard to believe the lighthearted vibe throughout the song, and another lyric, “I’m pretty sure I had the time of my life when the lights went out,” leads the listener to conclude that the darkness here is something to revel in rather than repel.
The second half of the album is devoted to more ballad-esque songs and is the stronger half. “L’Esprit D’Escalier”‘s delicate acoustic guitar plucking and sharp harmonica squalls evoke a sort of Southern Gothic feel when Barilla sings in his baritone, “Where were you when the bottom dropped out / when the mine collapsed / when the canary died.” The song continues to build toward a climax by way of bouncing low-end piano chords and stuttering violin, until all drop out and the same acoustic picking resumes, the harmonica whispers its last notes, and Barilla whispers the song’s last lyrics.
The one detractor from an otherwise cohesive and beautiful album is the oddball blues stomp of “Year of The Drought.” With its sing-speak vocals, jangled piano parts, and distorted guitar, the song sounds more like a Modest Mouse B-side than the rest of Barilla’s work on the album. Though the record does feature a good bit of stylistic variation, “Year of The Drought” seems to be missing a certain unifying quality that the rest of the songs have, and for an album like Small Songs whose sum is greater than its parts, this is a noticeable flaw.
The motorcyclists behind me rode in tandem for the duration of the song, and shortly afterwards I turned and they rode on forward. Just as I wondered then where these four were going, I wonder excitedly now what Barilla will pull out of his orchestral bag of tricks to follow up the sublime Small Songs.