BY KEN WALCZAK
“How do you think I was brought in this world? / I was coughed up in 1963,” spews Tim Feleppa in the opening lines of The Better Button,. “How do you think I got good with guns? …” And while lyrics like these aren’t likely to earn the Mink Lungs airplay on Clear Channel stations in the coming weeks, listeners to this fearsomely accomplished album should be gleefully unconcerned.
There is a certain comfort to the wicked grin with which Mr. Feleppa delivers his vocals, the creation of an instant and delicious complicity, buttressed by the construction of the opening track (“I Feel Love”) and extended by the dynamics underlying the album as a whole. The important sounds appearing before the opening lyrics are drums. Like so much else on The Better Button, they are drum sounds bent unnaturally by studio tricks; the trickery only serves to make the listener feel more at home. Given enough volume, these drums conjure a knock at the living room door from a mittened guest coming in from the cold — insistent, yet fuzzy, and happy to see you again. So it should come as no surprise if, when Feleppa introduces himself, we can only sit calmly on our couches, nod to the music and grin with him about his guns. The sensation is exciting, and somewhat reminiscent of the more charming moments of E, the Eels chanteur and perhaps the only songwriter to achieve widespread pathos with the couplet: “Life is hard/ And so am I …”
None of which is to downplay in any way the Lungs’ evident love of storm und drang. “I Sell Love” is pleasant and inviting, after all, but it is also rowdy and raucous, full of blazing guitars connected to even fierier pedals. Much of The Better Button’s homey texture emerges from off-kilter melodies banged out on synthesizers and stringed things awash in delay, distortion and feedback (not to mention urine, listed with what can only be total seriousness under “Instrumentation” in the liner notes). If this kind of soft-machine aesthetic seems to you counter-intuitive, imagine the Dayton, Ohio basement that spawned Guided By Voices’ legendary lo-fi noodlefests, or the way-out sounds sloppily recorded by bedroom pop stars everywhere. (Gian Carlo Feleppa – responsible for “Silent Sex,” the unreasonably catchy ode to outer space intercourse that may well be the Lungs’ to-date magnum opus – appropriately cops to the charge that he and his brother were originally “four track junkies.”)
Better yet, imagine British rockers Gomez, if they had never gone through their Deadhead phase. While Mink Lungs share little of Gomez’s core aesthetic, they employ the same kitchen-sink approach to songcraft. Most tracks on The Better Button are concluded by collapse — a freak-out or a wash-out, the final victory of entropy over the order of pop-song structure. Most songs also lead directly and instantaneously into their successors. Almost without fail, these re-establish order, in the form of a jangly acoustic guitar and more reassuring, inspired wickedness. Openers like “Like may feel/ As soft as eels/ But we all know it’s a prickly cactus” evoke a smile every time. But they also work like establishing shots in a Dario Argento horror film, giving the audience a sunny, well-deserved breather after the chaos has subsided.
In the end, it is this dynamic that proves the Mink Lungs postmodern rockers in the most flattering sense of an overused term. The Better Button successfully embraces life in all its frustrating unpredictability, without degenerating into the grim resignation of a P.J. Harvey or the nonsense pretense of a Beck. It is a compelling, engrossing record, whose strength lies in simple alchemy: one part charming (“Your nose lights up the dark, and you’re too lovely for this city/ You look like you hark from the cold parts of the planet/ Where the girls are pretty”) and one part winkingly sinister (“Do you still live in that face?”) equals two parts sublime. Perhaps most importantly, it serves as a reminder that wickedness does not always fall from the sky. Sometimes it wraps around us like an old, comfortable blanket and rocks us to sleep.