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Simon Joyner - Room Temperature / Beautiful Losers

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Artist: Simon Joyner

Album: Room Temperature / Beautiful Losers

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Mar. 10, 2006

If the record-buying public is going to go on overlooking Simon Joyner’s music, Jagjaguwar has decided that it won’t be due to lack of access. Late last year the Bloomington label stocked its shelves with new LP pressings of the Omaha singer’s early full-lengths, and gave Joyner’s very first release, 1992’s Room Temperature, the full-fledged reissue treatment. This month they’re releasing Beautiful Losers, a compilation of singles and one-offs that Joyner recorded from 1994-1999. All of these recordings predate the singer’s richest period, which begins with The Lousy Dance in 1999, and continues through to the present, but recent converts with the cash to drop can now draw this, or other conclusions, on their own.

Joyner emerged at the same lo-fi moment as bands like the Mountain Goats and Smog, and though he’s maintained a lower profile, his creative arc looks similar – a flurry of rudimentary songs followed by a steadier stream of more stringently recorded albums. Wry turns of phrase, alliterative symbols, and Middle American mini-narratives have always been the draw, but they didn’t always glow with the warm, evocative backing of talented set players like Michael Krassner, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Glenn Kotche, and Jim White. In fact, Room Temperature has less in common with Joyner’s recent fare than it does with the lo-fi totems of its era – the Mountain Goats’ Zopilote Machine, or Built to Spill’s The Early Years. Boisterous tracks like “Ruby Slippers” and “Vegetables” come stocked with roiling major chords, yelped vocals, and tape hiss, and Joyner swipes John Darnielle’s trick of emphasizing a lyric by playing it, well, faster and louder.

Unfortunately, Joyner doesn’t have the bleating exuberance – nor his songs the ringing, rhyming, clarity – to work as effectively in this mode. As a result, Room Temperature spends much of the time rumbling over proto-emo potholes, though in places it offers glimpses of the mature singer’s self-deprecating humor and sly phrasing. The eerie “Hallelujah” flickers with an uneasy, minor key anguish. It’s a tone that threatens elsewhere to explode into full-out indie bathos, but half-ironic lines like “It’s anomie lonely boy, why don’t you see a show?” (“Double Joe”) get away with playing it both ways. A harmonica blasts in occasional homage to Dylan, but the Omaha native could do with more of the rock icon’s obliqueness. There are enigmatic nuggets (“There’s a color wheel lodged in the throat of the nation”) but they’re difficult to extract from the tuneless murk.

Beautiful Losers is a much more pleasurable dig. Designed as a handy shortcut for completists, it’s patchy by necessity – it could have made a 12-song masterpiece, but is endearing enough as a 21-song sop to fans. Most tracks find Joyner no closer to squarely hitting his notes, but his lyrics are enough to transform technical foibles into weighty expressive effects. On “Fearful Man,” a highlight, Alex McManus (Lambchop/Bruces) spots Joyner a whisper of violin, and the singer waltzes through lyrical fragments that are poignant without feeling showy (“The magazine needs flipping through / The calendar needs tearing, too”). The galloping “Robin Hood,” like Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac,” deflates myth by subtly shifting point-of-view (“I know you’re a man of honor, a real stand-up guy / When you’re not breaking into people’s homes while they sleep”). Elsewhere, such as “Swing,” Joyner straddles the line between tossed-off amateurism and raw immediacy. “Do you want to see my baby take a swing at me?” he moans sorrowfully, over a whining violin line and some leaden guitar plucking. Strained and nakedly desperate, it’s an atonal anti-ballad that Jandek might appreciate.

Sequenced more-or-less chronologically, the final LP side of Beautiful Losers is uniformly excellent. “Flannery O’Connor” is a morosely humorous death list, delivered in a low tone over muted guitar: “Virgil stuck a sword in his abdomen when his girlfriend sunk into a stranger’s waterbed / And Lucy killed Charlie again today with a soft, deceiving eye / I still shed a tear for him, for the faithful and the blind”. It’s Joyner in his mature mode – voice wispy and diffuse, delivering lines that prick days later, floating up from the subconscious. The record peaks as it concludes, with “One For the Catholic Girls,” a six-minute fan favorite. Assembled from an ironed-out organ note, a lethargic drumbeat, and a lo-key guitar pattern, Joyner peels off a disarmingly pretty tale about a cold walk home after a night he’s unwilling to fold up. “And you’re waiting with half-dry eyes / For something to fall or for something to rise “, he sings six wonderfully same-y minutes in, voice completely belying his words, showing steady’s just the thing.

By Nathan Hogan

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