It's a cliché worthy of more than a few eye rolls, but what's old will become new again. This is true of today's dominant fashions, a grab-bag of apparel ideas pilfered from the '60s, '70s and pretty much every other decade of the 20th century, and it's true of music, which often seems to work much the same way.
Self-recording maestro Dent May is a particularly interesting case study in how seemingly stale ideas can suddenly be infused with new life, mimicking the dense instrumental layers preferred by revered pop composers like Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks — visionaries who used the advent of multi-track recording as a springboard to make pop bands sound like psychedelic orchestras. But while the Oxford, Miss.-based singer-songwriter feels a kinship with these artists, he's quick to point out that his own music isn't stuck in the past. He wants to move pop music forward.
"I don't necessarily consider that a modern idea — to layer things like that — but it's become a lot easier to do cheaply for people like me," May explains, referring to his ability to record on his computer. "There was an early wave of tape-recording technology, multi-tracking technology, that happened in the mid-20th century that enabled people like Brian Wilson to kind of go crazy. For me, it's like, what if pop music keeps going? It's kind of this retro-futuristic idea, where we're kind of taking a lot from the past but also taking from the present and into the future. I'm really interested in colliding the past with the present and the future and taking things in interesting directions just by kind of mixing it up and spitting it out into something that's uniquely mine."
May has been busy of late trying to realize this vision. 2012's Do Things and 2013's Warm Blanket — his second and third LPs, respectively — sharpen his touch for bittersweet whimsy, blending Beach Boys-style harmony and ornate instrumentation with comfortably twisted synths, rowdy horn charts and spacey sound effects. None of these ideas is particularly new, but May compiles them with charming enthusiasm, arriving at confluences that feel surprisingly fresh.
Warm Blanket's "I'm Ready to Be Old," with its wistful exploration of mortality, comes straight out of the Wilson playbook (see "Surf's Up"), but May's confession is still incredibly personal: "Under the moonlight, a voice said to me / 'Honey, this lifetime is just fantasy,' " May sings, his voice bright and resonant despite the gloomy subject. The music energizes his bid for old age just enough to keep it from becoming depressing; repetitive acoustic strums come buttressed by colorfully distorted strings and peals of lustrous synths. "I think the future will feel much better than I feel now," May adds as the instruments fade, sounding suddenly frail. But the sound surges back, along with his youthful verve.
"With this album in particular," says May, "I wanted to tap into feelings and emotions that every human being must be confronted with: questions of mortality and what it means to be alive. 'What's the point of it all?' kind of. That's not to say that it's some grand statement, but more in a smaller, personal way. It's kind of tied to me as an artist kind of finding my way and also as a human being. I watched this George Harrison documentary by Martin Scorsese a whole bunch of times, and a lot of his songs are very mantra-based. I like the idea of making something that is super relatable on just a very basic human level."
To record Warm Blanket, May rented a house in St. Augustine, Fla., secluding himself in the historic hamlet. To wit, loneliness dominates these songs. Even "Born Too Late" — with its effervescent keys and Thriller-esque bass knocks — is nervy and anxious, jittering like a dude wracked by cabin fever. May's music is intricately constructed. It's also expressive.
"I think that isolation certainly led me to a more melancholy sound and maybe an ability to be even more honest with myself lyrically," May says. "It was a really freeing feeling to not have anyone to bounce ideas off of, but it was also kind of scary."
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