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Houseguest - Talking Time

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Artist: Houseguest

Album: Talking Time

Label: self-released

Review date: Feb. 14, 2005

Historians may look upon the first half of this decade as a unique cultural moment for the old-timey nerd. Between hooded sweatshirts, black frame glasses, novels by Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon celebrating comic books, a personality and style that might have kept someone from the heights of popularity 20 years before suddenly became an aspiration for young hipsters. Of course, as “hipster” seems increasingly to be used as a term of abuse, the long-term worth of some of these contributions remains to be seen. Nevertheless, a certain amount of bookishness and a fondness for obscure humor are now sources of credibility.

I bring this up not because Houseguest are self-consciously nerdy in the same way that Brooklyn electroclashers or (God forbid) They Might be Giants are self-consciously nerdy. No, I bring it up because their debut album, Talking Time, has song titles like “Final Call of the Airboatman,” “Traveller’s Fancy,” and “My Handsome Hat,” which I suspect were selected because they match the off-the-wall content of the songs (representative sample: “There was a time when we would don our finest flowing scarves. How they’d dance in the air! We’d tool around, in my fancy, covered, smallish car, past countless sights and stares”). I bring it up primarily, though, because one of the best things about Talking Time is it’s sense of humor. There’s a fine line between sounding intelligent and sounding grating, particularly when lyrics are involved, but Houseguest soft-peddle the jokes and, what’s perhaps more important, the irony. The most obvious precedent is Kurt Wagner’s work in Lambchop – all bemusement and understated intelligence.

Musically, Houseguest stick to tuneful two- and three-minute songs, built around traditional post-punk structures. Trumpet and piano appear on the occasional song, but most arrangements use only the lead guitar and synthesizer; the best thing to be said about the songs, though, is that they sound much bigger than their instrumentation – fairly bare bones verses suddenly give way to towering choruses. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics have a way of undercutting the drama of the whole thing, but it’s easy to get caught up nonetheless.

All in all, Talking Time is remarkably consistent, especially considering that this is Houseguest’s first album and their history, as far as I can tell, consists of playing a handful of shows in their native Ohio. The only real problem, in fact, is that it would be easy to pigeonhole. Morose bands have a seemingly limitless appeal, while “creative” or “clever” bands are limited to that small segment of the music-buying public that gives a damn about lyrics. Any band capable of writing memorable guitar lines, meanwhile, can easily get swept up as the next big New Wave revivalists. Houseguest deserve better than to be tagged as either, and Talking Time deserves an audience receptive to it on its own terms.

By Tom Zimpleman

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