Two Dollar Guitar
The Wear and Tear of Fear: A Lover’s Discourse
wo Dollar Guitar was never a particularly a high-profile band during its peak in the 90’s, known primarily as a Sonic Youth side project due to Steve Shelley’s tenure as the drummer. But after 2000’s Weak Beats and Lame-Ass Rhymes, Hoboken-based singer/guitarist Tim Foljahn seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. Although a string of solo shows in 2003 confirmed that he was still writing new material, the six years that passed before Two Dollar Guitar’s fifth album, The Wear and Tear of Fear: A Lover’s Discourse , are about equal to the length of time that the band took to release its first four albums.
For popular bands with dedicated fanbases, a lengthy gestation period for a new album tends to foster a certain mystique and rampant speculation. But for an indie band on the outer edges of obscurity, it usually just means members have been busy with day jobs, or other bands (in Foljahn’s case, playing bass in Bob Bert’s latest band, Int’l Shades). Foljahn is the core of Two Dollar Guitar, having recorded several 7”s and cassette-only releases by himself, but the proper albums always featured a full trio, with Shelley and a bassist, usually Dave Motamed. The Wear and Tear, on the other hand, though co-produced by Shelley and released on his label, Smells Like Records, is almost entirely played by Foljahn, with minimal accompaniment by guest musicians on two songs.
Foljahn’s hangdog baritone, and his way around a depressive mid-tempo creep, meant that Two Dollar Guitar were never really a rock band even when he had a rhythm section behind him. The black humor of his earlier lyrics and Shelley’s steady, insistent shuffle translated to a restrained menace that occasionally boiled over into some kind of evil electric blues, particularly on 1996’s Burned And Buried.
Fully solo here, though, Foljahn’s songs pack less weight, and it’s not just the home recording’s stark arrangements. After all, Foljahn employed a similar approach on the 1998 album Hotel Opera, recorded under the alias La Lengua Asesina. That album was Foljahn at his darkest, sounding a little like Nick Cave over claustrophobic arrangements of acoustic guitars and harsh, minimal drum machine tracks. The Wear and Tear, by contrast, is the warmest and most sentimental he’s ever sounded. His voice seems less hesitant to reach out of its naturally low range now, even going for a high note now and then.
After the brief instrumental “Blue Coat and Yellow Vest,” The Wear and Tear begins with “Cascade,” which sets lyrics to the track of the same name from the band’s 1998 instrumental album, Train Songs, and segues directly into the melodically similar “The Wild Night.” From then on, it becomes apparent that the subtitle A Lover’s Discourse is key to understanding the album, as Foljahn sings unironically about “a girl that loves me so” over a gradually swelling synth string arrangement that sounds a little cheesy, but also downright pretty in spite of itself. For anyone hearing Two Dollar Guitar for the first time, these slow, pretty tunes are hardly cause to bat an eye. But to a longtime listener, they represent a fairly significant shift in tone.
Some songs do hearken back to the darker, more cryptic Two Dollar Guitar of old. “Wide Load” creeps along like several songs on Weak Beats and Lame-Ass Rhymes, even if it ends in an uncharacteristic gurgle of synths. And the sort of title track, “The Wear and Tear of Fear,” features a foreboding melody that brings to mind some of Two Dollar Guitar’s best past work, like “T-Shirt” or “Star Sixty.” On previous albums, those songs would work their way up to a climax as Shelley’s drums roll in and Foljahn lets out a cathartic yell. But “The Wear and Tear of Fear” never gets there, and while that choice has its own subtle sort of impact, you’re left wishing for a little more variation in volume.
Still, there’s some charm in the kinder, gentler Two Dollar Guitar, as Foljahn’s talents as a guitarist and a melodist have seldom been more evident. Despite its dinky drum machine backing, “Lying And Cheating” might be the most overtly country song Foljahn’s ever written, complete with wandering slide guitars and a brief spoken bridge. And the gorgeous “4 O’Clock” benefits from the accompaniment of Steve Connolly on tambura. Frustratingly, though, the vocal melody is somewhat obscured by the use of the same tinny filter effect that Foljahn applied to his voice frequently on Hotel Opera.
The Wear and Tear of Fear is a welcome return, considering that for a few years it wasn’t clear if Tim Foljahn would ever crawl back out of the woodwork and deliver an album. And though I think he generally sounds better brooding with the assistance of a rhythm section, there’s something heartening about hearing him sing vulnerably about love for once. Whether his music remains on that path or not, though, here’s hoping he doesn’t take another six years to follow this one up.
Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2006-10-26