Feel-good sounds

Pub date February 18, 2009

DENT MAY AND HIS MAGNIFICENT UKULELE What we have here, to get right down to it, is a perfect case of truth in advertising. The cover of The Good Feeling Music of Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele (Paw Tracks) — the just-released debut from the eponymous uke-strumming, street-corner-serenading smooth operator — spells out its primary objective in impish scrawl, rainbow-and-curlicue-festooned illustrations, and a photo of the showman getting swanky in tuxedo finery. It’s an eye-catching introduction, to be sure, but May is more than ready and willing to deliver on such promises. Having pinpointed the rarely-visited sonic intersection between Dean Martin and Jonathan Richman, the crooner extols the virtues of girls and parties with a fetching blend of exuberance and sincerity. Just in case the witty, bookish lyrics aren’t enough to crack a smile on listeners’ faces, the accompanying musical cocktail should do the trick: one part ’60s pop, one part breezy Tropicalia, two parts nightclub lounge act. Quite the recipe for feeling good. Some of the credit for May’s grinning inspiration must be given to the beloved instrument of the disc’s title. “I’d been stuck in a bit of a rut, songwriting-wise, before I bought the ukulele from a friend,” he explains over the phone from his Taylor, Miss., home. “I was actually working on a country and western rock opera beforehand — pretty downbeat stuff. It all changed once I picked up the ukulele.” Asked whether the title could be considered a mission statement for himself and the band, May says, laughing in agreement, “Sure, I wanted this to be a celebration of what music means to me.” The disc feels very much like a celebration: of crooning vocals — comparisons to Morrissey or Jens Lekman are not off base, though May cites Prince and Lee Hazlewood as his favorite singers — but also of the notion of music as communal experience. Much like Lekman or Richman, May specializes in clever, audience-engaging songs about life’s essentials: love, friends, having fun. “I’ll make you see/ it ain’t so bad in Mississippi,” he jokes on the buoyant “You Can’t Force a Dance Party,” and the song’s evolving chronicle of throwing a bash for a visiting sweetheart is all charm, swung along by giddy ukulele and hard-shaking tambourine. “At the Academic Conference” — “smart people everywhere … but do they know what love is?” — sways with argyle-sweater romanticism, pairing glee club vocals and sunny Parisian café pop in a snappy reminder to not lose sight of what’s truly important. The tune also offers one of the finest self-deprecating zingers I’ve seen in a while: “Joyce, Whitman, and Camus/ Well, no, I’ve never read them/ I’m here just for the booze.” (Todd Lavoie) A.C. NEWMAN Carl “A.C.” Newman’s 2004 solo debut, The Slow Wonder (Matador), sits atop many a pop enthusiast’s iTunes playlist, and not merely for alphabetical reasons. Alongside the considerable quality of Newman’s output as chief songwriter for the New Pornographers and Zumpano, Wonder was a delightful, scaled-down showcase of his talents, boasting such jubilant instant classics as “On the Table” and “The Town Halo.” Get Guilty (Matador), Newman’s recently released second solo disc, is nowhere near as immediate a thrill as his first, nor is it as cheery — a not-unexpected turn given the shades of melancholy that color the two New Pornographers albums that have come out since then, 2005’s Twin Cinema and 2007’s Challengers (both Matador). It takes several listens for Get Guilty’s songs to settle in, but when they do, they stick with industrial strength: for instance, “The Heartbreak Rides” has a sneaky chord-change hook that gradually swells to a grand, fife-inflected breakdown, and the chugging acoustic guitar propelling lead single “The Palace at 4 AM” lays a frantic bed for Newman’s bouncy, infectious narrative. In one line from “Submarines of Stockholm,” he refers to the submarine’s Swedish stop as “one in a series of highlights and holy lows” — a clever turn of phrase applicable to this record, a terrific new addition to Newman’s brilliant corner of the pop canon. We’ll see how his new numbers go down live when he performs at the Independent. (Michael Harkin) A.C. NEWMAN With Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele and Devon Williams Feb. 28, 8 p.m., $15 Independent 628 Divisadero, SF (415) 771-1421 www.theindependentsf.com