Owen Holmes hails from Jacksonville, Florida. Wow, there’s one place I’ve never wanted to go. Already, I digress.
He plays bass for the Black Kids. They’re okay, I guess; hadn’t really given them much thought. If his (mostly) solo project Gospel Music is any indication, though, Holmes has a solid future as a singer-songwriter. And not one of those boring, self-indulgent ones, but more like an entertaining, diverting, poetic and self-indulgent one – hey, the last goes with the territory. Pretty much.
Recorded at home in the Sunshine state, How to Get to Heaven From Jacksonville, FL is a small treasure for anyone attracted to literate, self-abasing humor and primitive, but musical melodicism. Taking substantial cues from Lou Reed and Stephin Merritt, Holmes writes with pith and wit about romantic mismatch (“Bird/Fish”), romantic despair (“This Town Doesn’t Have Enough Bars for Both of Us”), romantic betrayal (“I Shared Too Much with Her”) and romantic resignation (“Bedroom Farce”). He self-accompanies these little morsels with sharp, spare instrumentation that concentrates on acoustic guitar, toy piano and ukulele, fleshed out with all manner of instrumentation, including the standard bass and drums (he even uses banjo without making me grab for my faux-Americana annihilator … a handy weapon, indeed). With limited chops, Holmes makes the most out of nifty little framing lines on guitar, bits and pieces of melodic guitar-age, stray elements of this and that, from the Velvets to the Ventures.
His vocal foil, Madeline Long, contributes harmonies and alternate leads parts with a musical, delightfully awkward charm. Her girlish voice blends sweetly with Holmes’s gawky, talky baritone. She’s deployed especially affectingly on “Bedroom Farce,” a conversation between two lovers with restless, wandering eyes, each traded verse culminating with this exchange: “I don’t know what you see in her (him).” “Farce’s” kitchen table repartee is Holmes at his best – Magnetic Fields (Stephin Merritt) without the musical theatre artifice. Long also takes the lead for “Apartment.” The song’s a bittersweet take on the social withdrawal and isolation that accompany breakups, and about reconciliation (“if we get back together,” further positing such cost-saving reliefs as “we won’t need clothes”).
But it’s not all bittersweet resolution.Treasure this truly scary line from “I Shared Too Much with Her” – “she put her pup in the pound and stayed for the weekend.” Wow, do you really want to get mixed up with a chick that ditches her pet on a whim? Just saying. Maybe I speak from experience. Beware expedience.
Many of Gospel Music’s ditties chronicle the lovely and ugly lines that certain alcoholic libations weave through our narratives. “This Town...” being the most obvious example, but also on “Apartment,” (where staying in means the “drinks are cheap”), and “You Don’t Have to Be Alone (But You Can’t Stay Here)” with its “we’ve had our last call” theme.
Musically, beyond parlor-folk, Holmes skirts Postcard/Orange Juice influence on “Let’s Run,” holding down a bedroom version of rock motives from “96 Tears” and “Get Ready,” while observing adroitly that “white people running is funny ‘cuz white people run for fun.” Gospel Music also traffics in rock riffage from the “Louie Louie/Sweet Jane” (on uke, that is) well on “Death of the Newspaper,” which laments same and suggests that “democracy will flop” as a consequence. I dunno, Owen, that old girl has many discontents, but maybe changes in the delivery of information are part of the deal.
Not every moment is golden. “No Sharks” is a leaden metaphor, redeemed only by a fetching tune. And “Can’t Be a Man If I Don’t Have a Woman” is almost as hopeless as its title. But hey, mostly How to Get to Heaven … is a refreshing collection of oddball tunes. Gospel Music have their own curdled version of romance (think Jonathan Richman as libertine), but its literary sensibilities and musical inclinations should be welcomed by fans of artists from Belle and Sebastian to Camera Obscura (check out the video – with Camera’s Tracyanne Campbell, recorded prior to How to Get to Heaven), from Magnetic Fields to … well, even Leonard Cohen. Owen Holmes’s tales of bedroom entreaties, duplicity and romantic accommodation are bright enough to flirt with such company.