Published on March 28th, 2014 | by Dave Scaddan0
Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
Mac DeMarco is back, defying genre and reinventing the very foundations of what constitutes a ballad. Dave Scaddan takes a look at DeMarco’s ‘Salad Days.’
Sometimes when I get a new record, the hole for the spindle of my turntable isn’t quite large enough. I keep a little paring knife next to my stereo that I can use to scrape away the extra plastic that wasn’t cleaned away properly from the center of the album when it was pressed. I don’t like doing this to a brand new record, but it has to fit on there somehow. When the spindle hole is a little too tight, it affects the revolution speed of my belt-driven turntable, making the music sound a little wonky and uneven, like a windup toy on its last few cranks before conking out. For the first few months that I had Mac DeMarco’s last album, ‘2’ on vinyl, I reached for that paring knife every time the first few guitar licks of ‘Cooking Up Something Good’ came out of the speakers. Thing is, that record fit perfectly on the spindle – it didn’t need to be pared open — that’s just the way Mac likes his guitar sound.
On his latest record, ‘Salad Days,’ DeMarco is sliding and bending those strings with the same fervor for quirky shifts of pitch. Though his heart-melting, crooning vocal style is still part of the program, it’s really his guitar playing that stands at the fore of most of these tracks. It is typical in reviews like this one to compare that guitar style to similar sounds made by other guitarists, but such comparisons won’t really do DeMarco justice in this case (I’m still going to try once before I’m done here, just you wait). His guitar sound is truly fresh, jangling a little, twanging a little, almost effortlessly strumming and picking out the catchiest of hooks.
That’s really my only complaint about ‘Salad Days’; I’m a big fan of DeMarco’s voice and lyrics, and these facets of his music tend to take a little more of a backseat in the mixing and composition of this new record than they did on ‘2.’ The accents placed on DeMarco’s guitar playing are there for a reason — he is a songwriter and guitarist with a distinct panache for personality. And don’t worry, the super-smooth vocal delivery is still a factor. DeMarco can croon through a ballad that would sound incredibly corny coming from someone like Chris Martin or Conor Oberst and make it resonate. The split personality of his flighty, bent musicianship and his tender, compassionate lyrical work make for a style that is truly his own. Rock n’ Roll loves a split personality, and always has, (see Presley, Elvis or Bowie, David) which probably bodes well for DeMarco’s future as his profile continues to expand.
The multiple personalities don’t end there either, and anyone who’s seen DeMarco live (especially when there aren’t any cameras pointed at him) knows this from experience. When I saw him opening for Japandroids several months ago, his sweet singing and contorted soloing made for impressive juxtaposition, while the sophomoric personality of his onstage antics added yet another level of unexpectedness to his still developing image. It’s intriguing enough to listen to him seductively warble a tune about his love for the nicotine habit that he knows will eventually kill him, but when he brings his thumb to his nostril before starting a verse so he can casually drop a full-on farmer hork to the stage floor, the blending of sentiment, innovation and gaucheness makes for a truly unique and confusing blend. This is to say nothing of what profanities he might shout to his audience between songs, or where he might find a place to store a spare drumstick that no one in his entourage is using at the moment.
But despite the antics, there’s no hiding the fact that Mac is as great a young talent as we have hailing from the Canadian West right now. ‘Salad Days’ sees him strolling lazily through songs about love, family and relationship advice, adding a personal touch each time to make these well-worn themes seem nascent and pristine in his capable hands. His guitar work leads the way, with the odd falsetto to remind us that he’s not just a crooner. The songs feel a little more direct than most of what DeMarco has offered before, and nothing is pushed beyond its reasonable limits: the licks are catchy but not quite hummable, the pedal effects and wah-wahs are generously used without becoming an affront, the synths are sparse and cool but never piercing, the lyrics are simple and succinct without being trashy.
A high point for me is on ‘Treat Her Better’ where Mac’s guitar descends down a rambling riff from some forgotten fiesta as he counsels, “Treat her better, boy / if having her in your life’s something you enjoy.” The album is full of dry-wise remarks like this that tinge the record with street corner sagacity. Then there are the tunes that plead, like ‘Go Easy’ and ‘Let My Baby Stay,’ where DeMarco’s voice peeks through the mix a little more, dawning on the listener with a plaintive cry like, “Please don’t take . . . my love . . . away” and absolutely selling it, despite how trite those words may look in text.
Maybe I’m reaching here, and maybe I’m just lost in the desperate truth that Ween will never make another album together, but I — as a long-time admirer of the work of Dean and Gene — find solace in the sound of these new Mac DeMarco numbers. I like the way he sounds like he’s manhandling his guitar, as if to make it sound the way he wants he has to hurt it just a little, much like Deaner did on ‘A Tear For Eddie’ or ‘Transdermal Celebration.’ And when DeMarco puts his honest, goofy soul into a crestfallen line of lyric, it can hit that sad spot on the funnybone just like Gener does in ‘Birthday Boy’ or ‘Baby Bitch.’ There’s even something in the lo-fi roots of DeMarco’s work as Makeout Videotape that channels the mastery of ‘GodWeenSatan – The Oneness’ or ‘The Pod.’ He’s not genre jumping like Ween were known to, but he is defying genre, and he’s resurrecting the ballad as they managed to a few times.
Listening to this album streaming for free online made me instantly want to own it, to make a cold cash contribution to this grinning dude from Edmonton whose songs have been dazzling through my speakers for months. And when I find it on vinyl, it will fit my spindle like it was made to rest there, and spin at exactly the right speed.