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John Mendelssohn's "Sorry We're Open" Reviewed

Parenthesis assisted “Sorry We’re Open”

I  decided to review John Mendelssohn’s Sorry We’re Open and than immediately regretted it. It’s too much a case of the pupil rating the teacher and in the world of rock writing I place the former Creem scribe on a pedestal maybe a notch behind my very favorites of all time. But maybe not. Certainly, he is the least manipulative of the great writers from 1970s and 1980s, there is a toughness to his intellectual vigor.

And, personally, the last thing I need is Mendelssohn scrutinizing my prose.

I have yet to hear John’s first band Christopher Milk and indeed appear to have begun at the end with Sorry, We’re Open from 2009, but I did take a step backwards and listened to Sex With Twins from 2002, which is quite the equal of 2009’s model. With a terrific self-portrait “Life’s Dare”, a really good seasonal track “The Nightmare Of Xmas” and the dark suicidal “Falling Off The Face Of The Earth”, it is constantly startling and intelligent thought pop.

Sorry We’re Open is actually a very modern sounding album: conceptually it is is held together by John’s voice, an acquired taste. and a easy sheen belying its dark entanglements. “Umbrage, Lust and whimsy” comes the warning on the cover and I can hear all three plus whatever the hell the relationship is on “We’re Golden”. The first song “This Supermodel” dares you not to take it seriously. With backing vocals, and maracas rattling, John throws out mini portraiture like “She’s impatient when traffic slows to a crawl” as the impression of the girl gets darker and darker though the sound is bright light.

The very next song, “My Country Tortures”, wears its politics on its sleeve and it is light and weighty with a lovely brass break and a lovely coda. The prettiest song on the album is about Ireland’s potato famine. Well, as Freedy Johnston recently put it, you have to write about something. It is possibly John’s greatest song but once you understand the subject it effects the aesthetic pleasure. It is too pretty, you feel a little guilty. If you’ve listened to Danny Brown’s new album, Old, there is a similar disconnect.

Given the Mendelssohn as music writer time frame only “Soil Me” sounds like the sort of song you’d expect with heavy drums beating their way through in a prog-rock distaff and given his history as one of our top rock writers only “Dancing About Architecture” seems to reference in title at least his past history, even if the song itself, a deep album track if ever there was one, doesn’t. The album ends with a bang, the jazzy “Swastikas In Drag” which sounds like “We Three Kings” ripped to shreds and put back together.’

But if there is any one problem here I hinted at it earlier. There is too much to it, it demands a lot from the listener in a world where we don’t want to give any more. Ideas never stop hitting you between the eyes, midway through the album you get to “The Hard Stuff”, a tough minded “monster” of a song and you need to stop and reboot your brain, go watch Jeopardy or something. That’s why I called it modern, and that’s why I have been reviewing it song by song over the past couple of weeks. It overwhelms you and I am not sure it is worth this much effort. When you pull songs out of context they actually improve. Put “The Hard Stuff” on a play list between “Galang” and “Story Of My Life” and it shines like an opal.

Though Sorry We’re Open  is all of four years old and though I am guessing John has another album or two somewhere waiting to be unleashed, it sounds like a current statement of accounts, it misses out on the recession (though “Nights Of Cinnamon” might be a harbinger of horrors yet to come)  the lyrics are current and excellent. And even if they weren’t, the melodies are consistent and tuneful, the songs very well designed and executed, and the entire enterprise a pleasure. You can even waltz to one song. Now all I have to do is find the courage to show the review to him.

Grade: B+


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