The best album you didn’t hear this year: Devin Davis brings pop perfection
By Mark Guarino
Bedroom pop records are, by their definition, personal labors of love made by very strange people. After all, you can’t get more intimate than the music you make in the same place you sleep. So it takes someone with a carnival spinning in their head, consuming their waking and sleeping hours, who needs to, at all cost, figure out what instruments are needed, what keys to put them in, what lyrics to keep and what to toss, how the songs should be sequenced and what would make the perfect cover.
A fact of life that makes bedroom pop records special is that they are not made by the famous. The famous can try to imitate an unknown bedroom pop auteur like Devin Davis, but they would fail. They wouldn’t have the patience or the solitary stamina it takes to follow a personal obsession when the world isn’t waiting for it or even care that it exists.
Davis, a 29-year-old songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, quietly released his first album, “Lonely People of the World, Unite!” (Mousse), this year and it is a genuine knockout from front to back with zero filler. Recorded over three years in a Bucktown coachhouse with no running water, it is a meticulously crafted pop album that is warm around the edges, its insides filled with relentlessly catchy tunes, miniature moments that sparkle to life and a momentum that whips things together in a race towards the finish. As one of the year’s more immediate pop pleasures, it’s on a very short list.
Following the blueprint of big tableau albums from the Beatles “White Album” to the Kinks’ “Village Green Preservation Society” to Wilco’s “Summerteeth,” “Unite!” is a mishmash of moods and song styles with a common thread running between misfit despondency and nonsense euphoria.
Davis spent the majority of his free time carving down what he had into a 35-minute album. He played most of the instruments himself — guitars, drums, horns, organ and more — which was partly due to necessity. Having just moved to Chicago, he didn’t know any other musicians. The isolation became one of the album’s themes.
“It was pretty tough the first couple of years,” he said. “There’s just this kind of overwhelming feeling of everybody being just anonymous, just passing through. It seemed like a funny paradox that if lonely people united, there wouldn’t be lonely people anymore. I wanted it to be funny, but still have a sincerity to it.”
The songs shift from fuzzed-out rock stomps (“Transcendental Sports Anthem,” “Iron Woman’), acoustic psychedelics (“Sandie”), barrelhouse piano country (“Paratrooper With Amnesia”) and the soaring pop anthem “Giant Spiders,” with lyrics imagining the possibility of romance during nuclear Armageddon. Among the atmospherics Davis layers throughout the album are fireworks recorded from not one, but two different Fourth of July celebrations held in Grant Park. Turns out Davis is a fireworks enthusiast, having recorded them, in Chicago and elsewhere, for years.
“I just like the sound,” he said. “And because it happens once a year … it’s like a show. During the fireworks, everybody cheers. In a sense they’re celebrating war and loss.”
In the past era, when album-length statements were in vogue, it is easily conceivable that “Unite!” would immediately find an audience. Davis admits he is most comfortable in the analog era where singers didn’t use auto tuning to correct imperfections, instruments weren’t recorded so coldly, albums didn’t run 70 minutes just to fill up a CD and, maybe most importantly, lyrics mattered.
Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin were his triumvirate as a kid growing up in Clinton, Iowa. Because his parents — a symphony chorus singer and a college professor — only had the early Beatles albums, he only got around to discovering landmark albums like “Abbey Road” only recently. “The Beatles were the only contemporary band I liked in the ‘90s,” he said.
After his father took a job in Jacksonville, Fla., Davis enrolled as a history major at the University of Florida, but soon dropped out to follow his dream of having his own band to play with. He moved to Chicago soon after and got a job at a recording studio, where he recorded bits of “Unite!” at night.
That early isolation is a faint memory now that he assembled a seven-member band, including a full horn section. “It validated the move,” he said. “Having a band was such impossibility. It almost felt like it would never happen. Now it’s a joy.”
He hired a manager to promote the record to labels and radio and hopes to tour in the late winter. Even though it was written years before, the music on “Unite!” best describes his current mood. “There’s happy songs and sad songs, but I really wanted the songs to sound upbeat,” he said. “Upbeat, even if you realize later it’s depressing.”