The Paranoid Style
For Executive Meeting
From: The front cover of For Executive Meeting shows Paranoid Style frontwoman Elizabeth Nelson at an intersection in a residential area of Northport, Long Island. She’s in a pose she often likes to strike: head tilted a little to the side, one leg crossed in front of the other. It’s an impertinent posture, which suits a Long Island troublemaker nicely. Aesop Rock is from Northport; he writes in a completely different style, but his approach, which involves chucking handfuls of words, some of them ten-dollar words, at the listener in thick and occasionally digressive bunches, isn’t so different. Thomas Pynchon started out on the north shore of Long Island, as did Billy Joel, as did the chroniclers of Great Neck Glory in Sammy, and if you combine Pynchon’s referential density with Joel’s reverence for classic rock and Sammy’s post-grad insouciance, you might get something not unlike The Paranoid Style. But wait a second: the Bandcamp page situates the group in Washington, D.C. This, too, checks out — Nelson is a vocal fan of the Nationals, and rumor around the lit-pop underground suggests that she works for the Ministry of Magic or something similarly governmental. She’s also a journalist who has written extensively about pop music, golf, American football, Ireland, whatever moves her. The point is that unlike some of the characters she writes about with so much compassion on For Executive Meeting and other projects, her livelihood does not depend on the public acceptance of her peculiar version of rock and roll music. She’s not subject to the vagaries, or the one-upmanship, of any particular scene. She’s at liberty to take certain narrative risks, and she takes full advantage of that freedom.
Format: To scramble signals further, The Paranoid Style record for a Hoboken label: Bar/None, longtime home for wayward girls and misfit boys. There’s good reason to believe that their emotional attachment to Bar/None, and, by extension, indie Hoboken, goes beyond the merely transactional. Nelson and company devoted an entire wordy verse on A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life, their last album, to a description of a Bar/None-affiliated party headlined by They Might Be Giants. Nelson, a scrupulous chronicler of experience and list-maker, made sure to register the names of all the Bar/None artists on the bill. Driving push-pins into indie-star maps is a Paranoid Style preoccupation — for instance, that album cover I mentioned?, that turns out to be a reference, inscribed in song, to Jack Kerouac’s home in Northport. Which does not, to me, mean these musicians aren’t themselves from Long Island; nope, it deepens my suspicion that they are. They seem like exactly the sort of alt-culture true believers who enjoy and celebrate proximity to legendary artists. Long Island, Hoboken, the halls of K Street, wherever they’re from, they belong to that educated, cosmopolitan, completist, passionately geeky cabal comprised of people devoted to pop history and record collecting and gazing longingly at posters of Neil Young and The Pretenders. When these characters form bands, they don’t mess around with TikTok posts or Instagram clips. They’re here to make albums, man. This is a genuine, old-school long-player, complete with themes and storytelling and musical and narrative trajectories, and plenty of intertextuality between the songs and the classic rock canon.
Genre: Yes, classic rock. You’re familiar with the style; chances are, there’s no style you’re more familiar with. Chances are even better that that’s not your doing — classic rock is the music that simply won’t go away. All those songs by The Who and The Stones and Dylan and CCR that were in heavy rotation at the dawn of the era of classic rock radio are still in wide circulation. Arguably, pop is designed to be ephemeral, and even the greatest stuff is meant to fade as the new kids on the block develop techniques and aesthetics. But there will always be those among us willing to preserve the baby and the bathwater simultaneously, or who simply believe that the baby is sufficiently holy that the bathwater is sacrosanct. Put it this way: the main compositional and sonic influences on For Executive Meeting are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and have been for a very long time.
Fidelity: Funny thing is, the band hasn’t always sounded this way. Maybe The Paranoid Style intended to channel the classics on A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life, but the music was too scuzzy and ramshackle (and flew by much too fast) to evoke the pre-punk era. Nelson rammed syllables into her verses like a colonial soldier wadding a musket, and fired at will while the rest of the band scrambled to keep up with her. It’s noteworthy that the song about The Who wasn’t an encomium; instead, it focused on the trampling incident in Cincinnati in 1979. “Pete and Roger only fought three times,” Nelson teased, in a verse that sent up “Odorono.” The members of the band knew their way around the canon, but it was possible to think they were making fun of it. The Paranoid Style name-checked Mojo Nixon in the first song, lionized Linnell and Flansburgh, and got cheeky like Camper Van Beethoven, or artfully digressive like Ann Magnuson in Bongwater, or Celtic-pugnacious like the Pogues. They took the baton, or the rubber chicken, from left-of-the-dial late-‘80s pranksters and ran with it. Since then, the group has slowed down a little, and they’ve gotten noticeably better at the musical part of the show: the arrangements are fuller, the playing is more patient, the composition is more intricate, and the melodies are as memorable as the lyrical hooks. Nelson, who used to careen around her verses with indifference to anything but her message, is taking pitch, meter, and timbre more seriously than she ever has before. Some of her recent performances are downright pretty; many of them convey great depth of emotion. She’s tucked herself into the mixes more sensibly than she ever has, too. It’s hard to tell whether the production on For Executive Meeting is crisper or if the Paranoid Style has just tightened up a ton; regardless, these days, when they want to sound like Warren Zevon, they can sound like Warren Zevon. This makes for a more pleasant listening experience, right? Well, yes, yes it does. Undeniably. On the other hand, there be monsters here. The band approach on A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life was an ideal match for the personality of Nelson’s irascible narrators. The Paranoid Style presented the listener with an overload of brains, barbs, provocation, and acute observation. None of the jagged edges were sanded away, and some of them were sharpened to a murderous point right there before your ears. They dared you to follow along, and there’s a very good chance you did, because once the intellectual rollercoaster started moving, it was too late to jump off. Can a (slightly) more poised Paranoid Style still accommodate Nelson’s peculiarities? Does a real classic rock sound, played with enthusiasm and accomplishment by classic rock obsessors, suit her irreverence as well as insular, clever college rock did? Did The Paranoid Style get too good for its own good? Welp, to begin to answer that question, we’ll have to discuss…
What’s this record about?: “Exit Interview With P.G. Wodehouse” revisits a small but troubling chapter of 20th century literary history — the British humorist’s decision to make a series of post-internment broadcasts on behalf of the German government at the height of World War II. He might have done it to get himself out of the camps (the Nazis put him up in a posh hotel), which is an entirely human decision a 59 year old might make, if not exactly a heroic one. “In those days events overtook you,” Nelson imagines Wodehouse saying, sidestepping responsibility via passive voice, as ironists often do. Nelson, who excels at this sort of historical fiction, clearly has sympathy for the writer. But he’s here as an object lesson. Wodehouse was no fascist, but he played ball with the fascists; “you don’t argue with the Gestapo about where you dwell/that was my own personal opinion, anyway,” sings Nelson in the writer’s voice. Wodehouse makes his compromise and survives the war, and imagines that people won’t remember. “But they did,” Nelson assures us, in a voice that bangs like a gavel. He gets to live on, but he’s messed up his legacy. Thus he stands in contrast to some of the other figures on For Executive Meeting; for instance Barney Bubbles, graphic designer and album cover-maker, and subject of the first song on the set. Barney is a reprobate, a player in a game that’s fixed against him, and participant in an uptight society that is, in many ways, unworthy of him and rock and roll in general. His death at forty-one is a general tragedy; we’ve lost a “good man” and a better artist, and we’re all poorer for it. Yet Barney is, even from the grave, one up on Wodehouse: we remember him as a man who couldn’t be bought, and who stuck to his guns when the fickle winds of fashion began to blow against him. You can see why the members of The Paranoid Style might find this heroic; screwed up and anti-social, sure, but weren’t all the great rockers? Many of the songs on the set either concern or reference idiosyncratic musicians lost to the madness of modern life: John Prine, Adam Schlesinger, Alex Chilton, David Berman. (Charles Bissell of the Wrens gets a check-in, too; he’s sure been through the fire, but thankfully, he’s still with us.) Even the unloved Doug Yule is presented as a guy committed to the rock, determined to make the record he’s got in him, and therefore worthy of our respect. Like Cassandra Jenkins on An Overview On Phenomenal Nature, Elizabeth Nelson is not afraid to get elegaic about all of this, and there’s more than a hint of accusation lurking behind her otherwise descriptive verse. What can we say about a world that cannot make room for its misfits? One that kills off all its interesting characters before the final act? Nothing too good, buddy. The Paranoid Style put these losses in the context of the coldness of the bureaucratic age, and the indifference and complicity that capitalism always seems to encourage. Nelson consistently pokes fun at the accumulative mentality, and the illusion that people are getting somewhere when they’re actually digging themselves a deeper basement. If you’re rocking, the band seems to suggest, of course you’re a rebel against all of that. If you aren’t, you’re unworthy of your six strings and four chords. If you do rock, truly and sincerely, you might take your place in the great rogues gallery of heroes. Your honors might have to be posthumous ones. But at least you can go to your early grave with the knowledge that you never played ball with the Nazis, or kept the human equivalent of Satan on speed dial.
The singer: Even in the storytelling songs dedicated to lost or fallen pop-rock figures, Nelson breaks (often in verse number two) to make some pained first-person reflections. The Doug Yule number contains a confession from a new parent with an empty affective relationship to his/her baby; in “Barney Bubbles,” the narrator/biographer takes out her frustrations on the living room stereo; “Steve Cropper Plays Femme Fatale” tells of vomiting on the West Side Highway after playing a show on the Bowery with Wussy. As she did on A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life, Nelson amplifies the confessional feel of these stories by affixing specific settings and dates; i.e., if she says June 17, that means it must have actually happened. Well, maybe it did and maybe it didn’t. What matters is that all these snapshots are sad and desperate, and Nelson is fully present to the pain of them. The formidable, borderline-scary intellectual detachment that characterized previous Paranoid Style projects has given way to a tuneful, ruminative delivery that connotes deep familiarity with human problems. There are times on For Executive Meeting — the childhood flashback in the midst of “The Worst Of My Love,” almost all of “Alive And Vexing” — where Elizabeth Nelson allllllmost sounds like an ordinary heartbroken indie rock singer. That she is not: she’s never going to care if she’s note-perfect (good for her), and she has no time whatsoever for the clouding, ‘verbing, and stacking tricks so common in our mushrock era. She is, above all else, communicative, and this, more than the large vocabulary and broad range of allusion, marks her as a woman out of step with contemporary trends. Nonetheless, For Executive Meeting demonstrates that she can be as rueful as any of her peers, and that she’s reeling from the same sense of loss that all the rest of us are. Nelson has never been too big on romantic scenarios, and she still isn’t, exactly, but a running subtheme on the album is that the same capitalist power dynamics that vexed Hal Ashby are also making a goddamned impossibility out of ordinary relationships. This is played for (grim) laughs on “Love And Demotion,” a boardroom rocker reminiscent of some of Elvis Costello’s corporate send-ups, or at least “Step Into My Office, Baby.” But when Nelson sings about a third mortgage taken out on a pre-haunted home, or suburbanites mistaking a commemorative plate collection for interpersonal achievement, you can tell it’s no joke. She rents Shampoo for seven straight weeks at the video store; she “shops American” in a dreadful mall. This is no alien visitor studying human interaction in order to pass as one of us. These are the laments of a quiet dissident, sifiting through the plastic wreck of contemporary culture, looking for an outlet for oddball desires in a world that won’t accommodate them. When she sings “why did I give half my life to people I hate now?,” she could be speaking for every well-meaning civil servant who tried to change the system from within until the day she just couldn’t. That, I am afraid, describes a whole lot of people. One of whom may be Nelson herself.
The songs: The spike in seriousness may be attributable to Nelson’s number one collaborator: guitarist Timothy Bracy, leader of the ’90s-’00s indie rock band The Mendoza Line. Fans remember that group fondly; they probably also wonder whether the members share that feeling, or have any good memories at all. Following The Mendoza Line was a bit like experiencing a version of Richard & Linda Thompson’s “Walking On A Wire” that carried on for several decades. There was a boy (Bracy) and a girl (the equally stinging Shannon McArdle), their passionate love was doomed, and they had plenty to say to each other on the way out the door. The group matched their observations about the powder keg of male-female relationships to stately country-rock and “Blood On The Tracks”-era Dylan-ish music that underscored the gravity of the storytelling. Prior Paranoid Style releases shared with The Mendoza Line a sense of gallows humor, narrative depth, and well-spotlighted protagonists. But For Executive Meeting is the first Paranoid Style project truly reminiscent of Bracy’s old group. Bracy co-wrote two of the songs: country-rock rave-up “The Old Man and the Ex,” and the very sad Doug Yule number that, come to think of it, may get at his feelings about the price of obscurity and artistic pigeonholing even better than it describes Elizabeth Nelson’s. He’s recognized that his partner’s change in tone and disposition requires a different kind of approach. Sadder sentiment requires sadder music than that which TMBG and Bongwater generally supplied. It demands a crate-raid. “I’d Bet My Land And Titles,” the Prine tribute, gets such a nifty Stones-y strut going that it attracted Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers to cross-pollinate it. The toy surprise hidden in “Love And Demotion” is a nice, thick, skronky sax break, “The Worst Of My Love” is graced by a wonderfully screechy guitar solo that bleeds from the bars allotted to it to seep into the next verse, “Steve Cropper Plays Femme Fatale” gets the Byrds chime just right, and the creeping country-rock feel of the entire set culminates in a cover of Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache” that deserves to be called elegant. Not a first for this group, but I think Nelson would concede that they don’t do it too often.
The band: Some of the woodsiness of the new album is attributable to drummer Jon Langmead, who gets his Levon on whenever it’s appropriate. He hasn’t turned his back on the band’s frantic past — “Exit Interview With P.G. Wodehouse” is a blurt, and he’s right there stomping along with Nelson and Bracy, amplifying their outrage and egging them on. He’s just found a few more gears, and he’s learned to shift between them gracefully. William Matheny adds Steve Nieve piano octaves to “Barney Bubbles,” which is entirely appropriate, and breathy organ to the desperate “Until Birnam Woods Comes to Dunsinane” (Nelson just can’t refrain from quoting the big boys), which seems nicely perverse. He’s the resident swingman — in addition to his synthesizer contributions, he plays guitar on every track, and his versatility adds dimension and depth to these songs. The stealth MVP of this project, however, is bassist William Corrin, who holds these layered arrangements together. Really dedicated Bar/None fans might even call him the Brian Beattie to Nelson’s Katy McCarty. He thickens and broadens the sound, finds curious notes, pushes things just enough, and provides ballast for Nelson’s flights of storytelling. And yes, it’s true that nobody listens to The Paranoid Style to hear the bass guitar. But Nelson and Bracy understand Corrin’s importance: they’ve brought him forward in the mixes, and they’ve let him be the big oak that they all stand around when the ground starts shaking.
What’s not so good?: “I’m not going to apologize/because I take my cues from old white guys,” Elizabeth Nelson sings, rather defiantly, on “Love and Demotion.” Fair enough. She’s in character, sure, but the words still apply, and as one of the oldest and whitest once told us, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Can’t fault her taste: Nelson tends to pick the cream of the crop to emulate. Yet when she sings of Barney Bubbles that “in the ‘80s your career went bad/which can only be considered a compliment,” well, them’s fighting words. And never mind that Elvis Costello, a major, major influence on For Executive Meeting, has said many similar things; Elvis made much of his best music in the 1980s. I concur with Nelson that John Prine has more integrity than EBN-OZN, and I think I could even be convinced that our long downward spiral into the sociopolitical hellscape we currently inhabit accelerated mightily during the Reagan years. But that doesn’t mean the art was lousy. As I see it, the 1980s marked the beginning of pop-rock self-consciousness: awareness of the trajectory of rock history and the fundamental artifice of the pop enterprise, and the growing public acceptance of records that were deliberately made out of other records. Post-modernism, in other words, and Elizabeth Nelson, with her broad range of allusion, love of pull-quoting, unabashed pinching/recombining elements from her sources, and propensity to wisecrack about all of it, would have fit in the day-glo sweatshirt perfectly. A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life felt, to me, like a thorough embrace of a Eighties sensibility and outlook; For Executive Meeting, with its solemn appreciation of the fallen and the too-pure, feels like a repudiation of it. I don’t want to put too fine a point on this; Nelson does get in a couple good shots at Lou Reed. She’s still a handful. But she’s searching for real substance and pain-ease in a way that she never did before, and while this conditions the possibility for many of the things about For Executive Meeting that work, it also leads to the album’s only errant step. On “The Worst Of My Love,” she slows things down for a section of shout-outs, including a few sent to artists lost and misplaced. The tone is grave, the delivery is earnest, and the syntax is uncharacteristically awkward. I have no doubt that Nelson is feeling this to her core: it’s been a wretched period in the history of the earth, and we’ve all lost far more than we can bear. But this sort of reverential roll call of the angels is really best left to the Robin Pecknolds of the world — not somebody capable of delivering some genuine hard rhyme about Alan Greenspan.
What differentiates this record from others like it?: A piano-driven slowdown at the end of a Westerberg-y song might sound to you like something the Hold Steady might do. Elizabeth Nelson shares with Craig Finn a conversational delivery and a deep love of the masters; they’re both dismissive of the new wave, but their frames of reference could only have been forged in the Eighties. Yet the Hold Steady have no qualms whatsoever about chasing a pure classic rock sound: sometimes, this is awesome, and sometimes the application of Tad Kubler’s power chords and Franz Nicolay’s Bittan-isms to Finn’s (and I write this with affection) duck-like delivery creates so much incongruity that the ship goes straight down to the bottom of the sea. The Paranoid Style have gotten tighter and louder, but they still never attempt to knock the listener over with music. Their old suspicion of grandeur and majesty as a mechanism for the delivery of meaning hasn’t gone away entirely. Nelson remains a critic at heart, and she’s still adept at delivering the lyrical equivalent of side-eye. The sacramental hedonism of The Hold Steady’s best songs wouldn’t mean anything to her; she’s a cultural diagnostician, not a party person, or even a party person sympathizer. She’s got more in common with Will Sheff of Okkervil River, another wordy songwriter who raids the classic rock pantry when necessary, but conspicuously holds his nose when he does. Some of that stuff molding away in the back stinks pretty bad by now. There’s overlap between For Executive Meeting and The Silver Gymnasium, the album that represents Sheff’s closest encounter with the specters of rock history. On Gymnasium, Sheff treated the music as a soundtrack to a youth reconstructed, and that included lots of cues and references meant to establish setting, location, and tone. Your modern Elizabeth Nelson does some of the same. Her deep immersion in her own record collection prompts her to peer over her shoulder with perspicacity, and, since music is a preservative, with accuracy, no doubt. To her credit, though, she’s no memoirist. There’s not much attempt to psychologize her characters and no half-suppressed trauma to be found down down that deep river. For Executive Meeting might be nostalgic, but nothing on this set belongs in a TV movie. A song about Steve Cropper will reflect on its narrator and indicate something about her own rock and roll aspirations and misfortunes, but it is still, primarily, a song about Steve Cropper. Nelson remains more interested in telling stories of her heroes than she is in telling stories about herself, and if those stories are salient to her current emotional predicament, well, hey, a certain amount of self-absorption is expected from a strummer. Among Nelson’s superpowers: she’s able to provide the listener with a staggering amount of character and personality without getting too confessional. She lays out her details bit by bit, but never treats a song as an inkblot test. Because of her literacy, sense of humor and irony, detachment, and occasional paralyzing sadness, the songwriter she reminds me the most of is one she probably doesn’t rate one bit: Nick Currie, aka Momus, the wry, arts-educated hellion who consistently played as a more scathing version of Neil Tennant (she also reminds me of Neil Tennant). Momus, too, likes to write about the fickleness of fame and uncomfortable place of the performing artist within the dynamics of late capitalism. Like Nelson, the more his heart breaks, the funnier he gets. Of course, Nelson rocks and Momus does not, so if you’re a fan of the Hall of Famers I’ve referenced in this review, you’ll probably want to stick with The Paranoid Style rather than turn to, say, “I Was A Maoist Intellectual In The Music Industry.”
Recommended?: As you’ve probably figured out by now, I love this group. I dig their intelligence, I appreciate their affection for their antecedents, and most of all, I commend them for their courage. Though they’re not shooting for the charts or even a mass audience, they nevertheless elicit powerful responses from the many who feel marginalized by the reverbed-out mushfest that is modern American alt-rock. Nobody in this band is the least bit interested in hiding anything, and their songs are arranged and mixed accordingly. When Elizabeth Nelson has something to say, she doesn’t shroud it in vocal stacks or smooth her declamations with EQ or run the signal through the Space Echo. She just says it. If you don’t find this refreshing, well, chances are you haven’t been engaging too deeply with recent song presentation strategies. In honor of the band’s commitment to legibility, and even (occasionally) to long-windedness, I dusted off my old Friends & Neighbors format to review the album; I figured if any gang of musicians might appreciate an interminable response from a purple prosodist, this was the gang. Truth is, though, I’m not sure I find For Executive Meeting the same exercise in narrative inimitability that A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life was. It’s not that kind of thunderclap. But musicians like these can’t sit still — they’ve got too many ideas to explore, and too much adoration for pop-rock not to chase their models a little. “You want to kill your idols/but your idols are dead,” Nelson sings on “I’d Bet My Land And Titles,” summing up the dilemma of the modern punk and the literary critic in one epigram. She’s put all their cards on the table, and made her aesthetic allegiances crystal clear, and her band has kept pace with her rolling disclosure. And they’ve all taken a monumental risk by getting way better — a dicy thing for a group like this to do, but they’ve been rewarded mightily for their faith in themselves. They’ve got the chops to pass on those rewards to their audience, and maybe even those who weren’t previously committed.
Where can I hear more?: A record like For Executive Meeting demands a promotional circuit, but I’m not sure if this group tours. I doubt very much that the Mendoza Line will be back at it, either, not with Bracy busy with his Paranoid Style duties. No, your best bet here is Bandcamp, where you experience For Executive Meeting with the words in front of you. That’s not something I’d ordinarily encourage anybody to do, but this is not an ordinary group. Once you’re hooked, and you will be, get thee over to Bar/None Records for your physical copy. Record collectors like these don’t want to hear your excuses about “the cloud.” Music for the nebulous this is not. Thank goodness.