The first thing you notice is his voice. Max Sollish, the sole member of the band Dolfish, sings with a slightly whiny, slightly pitch warble, the sort of voice easy to dismiss as undeveloped or self consciously twee or just bad. It’s only on the third or fourth listen to his new album I’d Rather Disappear Than Stay the Same that you realize he knows exactly what he’s doing.
His phrasing is as delicate as any jazz singer’s, ranging from the delicate whisper of a child nodding off to sleep, to the angry cry of a young man who can’t seem to figure out how to move forward. His voice is unique, but it’s also perfectly tuned to his songs the way Bob Dylan or John Darnielle add layers of meaning through the careful manipulations of idiosyncratic singing styles. Nowhere on the album are Sollish’s vocal abilities on finer display than in the opening track, “Grown Ups.”
This is the sort of song destined to earn high billing on the playlists of melancholic bespectacled teenagers, but it’s worth noting that the listening habits of that particular demographic tend to hold up fairly well over time (we still listen to Nick Drake and the Cure, while the last time I saw Thin Lizzy on someone’s iPod was never). Written from the point of view of a young boy slowly realizing his parent’s drinking habit is not normal, the song captures perfectly the ways in which small children learn about the world of adults through strange, random glimpses. The protagonist of the song begins to seriously worry about his parent when “Mark McNamara heard from his older brother about Jimi Hendrix/ Choked and drowned on his own puke.” What is a morbid curiosity to his friends is a horror to the protagonist, who tells his parent that he “thought that would happen to you.” Sollish pushes his voice to the breaking point on the chorus, screaming “I don’t want to sleep, I don’t want to leave your side / Friday nights we were grown ups, you and I” over rapidly accelerating finger picking, imitative of the frenetic need to help a loved one whose problems are decades beyond one’s comprehension.
This album is resolutely Lo-Fi, but I don’t use the term to imply any innate “authenticity” or “rawness” in the material. Lo-Fi doesn’t sound like you’re in the room with the musician; it’s not supposed to. Instead, it emphasizes the artificiality of the recording process, purposely drawing attention to tape hiss, abrupt changes in style, and manipulations of sound. The lyrical counterpoint to this emphasis on artificiality is a recognition of the power of media on the lives of the songwriters (Kimya Dawson trying to fill her loneliness with fantasies of the guys from Duran Duran, Jeffrey Lewis writing songs about Leonard Cohen and Will Oldham, etc.). I’d Rather Disappear Than Stay the Same is filled with cultural references, but unlike Dawson and Lewis, they are almost never played for laughs. Like the reference to Jimi Hendrix in “Grown Ups,” they highlight the ways in which cultural products frame our worldview. “The One who Burns the Coffee” describes the cruel irony of a loved one bound by “what you were taught” while claiming Harold and Maude as her favorite movie.
Harold and Maude is all about throwing off inherited mistakes and creating one’s own morality, but the subject of the song “Never followed the plot.” Cultural references are points of miscommunication, the promises of genuine connection that can be obscured by reliance on media. He compares the inability to get over a lover to his embarrassing but undying affection for Dashboard Confessional, pretends he hates Pearl Jam to hide the pain of being passed up by a friend with an extra ticket, and refers indirectly to the disappearance of the Roanoke colony to describe “The only living memory of the memory of our family.”
Much of the album continues the understated trend of these first two songs, but others deviate, such as the title song, in which Sollish’s attempt to rock out only emphasizes his vulnerability and frustration. The effect is slightly comic, like a tee ball batter calling his shot in the far bleachers. This variety in styles is welcome, but Dolfish hits its stride best when exploring the way in which mediating emotion through songs, movies, and books ultimately obfuscates more than it clarifies our intentions and desires. The irony, of course, is that I’d Rather Disappear Than Stay the Same itself sounds so much more immediate, so much more full of tragedy and glory, so much more intentional, than most of real life. It’s a phenomenal if bizarre album by a songwriter likely to wriggle his way into the hearts of a lot of lonely kids over the next couple of years.
The album is available as a pay-what-you-want download at: http://afternoonrecords.bandcamp.com/album/id-rather-disappear-than-stay-the-same
I highly recommend it.