Good to great

Dead End Armory offer treasures by the ounce
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  May 7, 2008

Hope You’re Good | Released by Dead End Armory | with Honey Clouds + South China | at SPACE, in Portland | May 9
Listening to Wesley Hartley sing, fronting Dead End Armory, is an intellectual exercise. Part of the brain is occupied with thinking about his near-namesake John Wesley Harding (folk singer Wesley Stace), how they’d probably like each other, how they both seem inspired by Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Part of the brain thinks that’s stupid. Part of the brain is wondering if it likes this sometimes-screechy tenor. The rest of the brain is trying to parse the alternatingly absurdist and surrealist lyrics Hartley frames into intoxicating songs: “In the beginning, there were thousands/Walking on their hands, like lions/They were not angels, they were no-oo-ot like you/They were a fresh kill/they lived in anthills/like lions do.”

That’s the opening to “Chasing Systems,” the best of eight generally sublime tracks on Dead End Armory’s newest EP (or maxi-EP, maybe), Hope You’re Good. The song virtually breathes, with warm electric guitars paired, melancholy and dark, with a subtle central hook on the inhale, increasingly mad and tortured vocals and hard-charging guitar chords in the exhale, and a last breath full of grinding feedback and then gasps of starts and stops.

The album is that organic, recorded by Peapod’s Ron Harrity in the Map Room and Honey Clouds’ New Systems Laundry practice space, and there are times when you can very much hear the creak of a chair and an intake of breath, as in the first run-through of the chorus for “Weathered and Lagging,” as Hartley predicts, “we’ll take a gander back at the clothes stacks on your floor, and try to laugh,” without the slightest hint of mirth. Later, DEA retread this chorus, but opened up, plowing into a great electric guitar jam, like the Allman Brothers underwater.

Harrity attributes the reverb’s warmth to the location of the recording, but there is also a collective consciousness here, a restraint by guitarist Mike O’Connor not to get ahead of himself, reins that percussionist Chris DiBiasio uses to hold the band in check until it’s time to really get things going. Leslie Deane’s bass is a subtle ground wire.

I have to admit, though, that I like it when they rock out more than some of this touchy-feely fey stuff. I think the 2:42 “Pirate” of their first EP is still the best song they’ve recorded. It’s like they’ve learned how to make really pretty stuff and become a little too enamored of it, forgetting they can be a lot of fun. This disc’s opener, “Slowly Drift Away,” is spare to begin with, Hartley’s vocals over a picked acoustic guitar, then strips down further mid-song, getting just the least bit clumsy in the guitar line. It feels like the tune is slipping through your fingers. Maybe Hartley just wants us to feel he’s giving everything of himself to us: “If you need a dear friend/Here then/You can have mine.”

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