The first wave of critics weighing in on Laura Stevenson’s vibrant and surprising new pop/rock record Cocksure are all a-flutter about its confessional candor, its sustained tone of self-indictment, its publicly processed expiations. You’d think that, at NYU, these boys would have learned the difference between persona and a person. They might back off a bit on the Laura-Stevenson-lays-it-all-bare angle and give the artist some credit for crafting the surreal micropsychology of these songs and not just tapping her wrists with her very agile and quick-witted pen. But a critic’s credulity is selective and expedient. Unfiltered and artless confession has always made a better story than what they used to call imagination.
Most of the kerfuffle centers on the first line of the advance single “Jellyfish,” one of the best among Cocksure’s embarrassment of concise and hypermelodic pop delights: “I’m fucking hideous and spiteful when left to my devices,” she sings. Well, maybe she is; but what about the very next line? “I soak my tentacles in ice baths.” I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Laura didn’t actually do that. Her taste for inscrutable symbolism is every bit as prominent on Cocksure as the exhibitionist bloodletting. It’s the ducking and thatching of these two tendencies – one toward raw self-disclosure, the other toward opaque language and jarring images of a Jungian sort – that give the lyrics their curious, so-close-but-so-far texture.
But melody drives this bus, and that might be the best way to understand Stevenson’s lyrical strategies. She is power-pop’s own Frederic Chopin, a melody writer whose tunes are rendered in far more pixels per square inch than yours or mine. She hears the notes between the notes. Her melodic phrases are so purposeful and so finely graded that they dictate the grammar of her lyrics, accounting for much of their associative and disjunctive feel. And, like Elliott Smith – another one of pop’s most tuneful bloodletters – she just happens to have the verbal resources and imagination to keep pace with the somewhat-astonishing exactitude of her melodies.
Stevenson likes to create stylistic daisy chains between her records. Her third, 2013’s Wheel, began with a kind of Appalachian chamber-folk song: the only track on that collection of dark rock epics that fits that description. Cocksure opens with “Out with a Whimper,” a dynamic country/grunge waltz and the only song on the record that recalls the stormy Americana rock of Wheel. It’s “old me, meet the new me,” and the next two tracks – “Torch Song” and the aforementioned “Jellyfish” – introduce the buoyant, crunchy guitar-pop and the delirious melodicism that prevail the rest of the way.
As the band assembled to craft these zippy and eventful arrangements, it is not hard to imagine that one of their keywords was “nineties.” The alt decade is in evidence all over the place and in many expressions. The punchy two minutes and change of “Emily in Half” are just daring someone to script a brooding ’90s teen sitcom pilot by that name, with a winning theme song already in hand. “Claustrophobe” is the most overtly referential track on the record, and the reference is early Weezer. The basement thrash/pop of “Happier, Etc.” proudly displays Stevenson’s well-known pop/punk club affiliation. And, in the true spirit of the grunge decade, Cocksure’s handful of change-of-pace ballads – the ambient, tom-tom-driven “Ticker Tape” and the ’50s vocal pop miniature “Fine Print” (two of my very favorites) – are amongst the most warped and twisted thematically.
Stevenson and her longtime band, formerly known as the Cans – bassist Mike Campbell, guitarist Peter Naddeo, keyboardist and accordionist Alex Billig and drummer Sammi Niss – hit the studio for these sessions right on the heels of consecutive US and European tours, and Cocksure rocks and purrs with the easy confidence of a cocksure live band. The miracle, now as ever, is how Stevenson’s tiny acrobat of a singing voice manages to stay in focus on top of the band’s heavy New Wave/punk/power-pop moorings.
The juxtaposition of buoyant and tuneful rocking and lyrical themes of elective isolation, withdrawal and penance is what most people first notice about this exceptional record. Song after song, Stevenson’s personae shutter themselves indoors and decline life and connection, phobes more agora- than claustro-. But Cocksure’s title is not merely ironic. Stevenson’s coming out has a bit of a glint in its eye, if not a wink, implicitly recognizing that confessional candor is a form of braggadocio, self-loathing is vanity too and despair is the other white meat. Ultimately, we don’t have to decide whether this record is confessional catharsis or about it; suffice it to say that there is plenty of art as well in all this raw and unbearably catchy self-reproach.
Laura Stevenson and her band (without drummer Sammi Niss, who is on health-related hiatus) perform at BSP in Kingston on Friday, November 21. They’ll be sharing the bill with the prolific modern indie-rock institution Matt Pond PA, who are on a farewell tour. The show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15 in advance and $18 at the door. Advance tickets are available at Outdated and Rocket Number Nine in Kingston, Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, Darkside Records in Poughkeepsie and the Woodstock Music Shop. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. For more information, visit www.bspkingston.com.
Matt Pond PA/Laura Stevenson, Friday, November 20, 8 p.m., $18/$15, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.