Chris and Mollie

The Palm Tree

(Self-released; 2007)

By Clayton Purdom | 17 May 2007

What the fuck? I’m the dirty-minded champion of smut-rap and brimstone, the killah bee, Rapeman fan. I am a reluctant fan of twee artists, never their champion. I came around on Danielson; I granted Sufjan a pass. Never do I come waving the disc in my hands, huckawing hallelujahs and slapping my thighs with the jewel case, but here I am, waving slapping & huckawing, with a band that, by its own admission, leans twee. What an awful word, what a terrifying descriptor, that “twee.” The implications are dire: Dakota Fanning, Me & You & Everyone We Know, banjos. Twee defies depth and nets acclaim through forced importance, by implying things just better left said, like, the world is rough, and all that. Twee is the spoonful of sugar to good art’s insulin shot. Twee puts the diabetic in a coma.

You’ve read this before. Dom detailed Danielson’s granite emotion, reminded us that on at least that one occasion there was something decidedly un-twee being expressed through all that, erm, twee-ness. And I’ve written like this, too, standing outside the borders of my taste with some little-known artist and between gasps gushing, “I don’t normally like music like this but I do like this so that means everybody should!” But this Chris & Mollie record, here from nowhere, is something different. This rave is not a head’s up on new talent, not a surprising random promo, not some great album that is destined to be lost forever. Well, not just the first two of those, and not definitely the third. This album is nothing to mythologize, this is a record to listen to repeatedly, and to admire until you adore, and to burn into the hippocampus because of (not despite) all its strange, wonky, sometimes grating and (yes) twee moments. The t-word will appear only once more in this review.

The Palm Tree is a sprawling, infinite sort of work, strangely humane and humanly estranged. Emerging from the wooly din of guitars and context-sensitive percussion are horns, accordions, flutes, static, handclaps and duck quacks, all rising in quick kaleidoscopic bursts and fading, usually, just as quickly. These elevens songs have choruses, sometimes, but they stutter and grow and crumble on each successive implementation, giving the record a harried, suite-like structure, and this is less for the sake of being “ADD-friendly” (Architecture in Helsinki, ugh) than being necessary to tell the story that Chris & Mollie are attempting to tell here. Yes, this is a goddamn twee opera, outright, defying classification, about the bruised exodus of a man (played by Chris) from a relationship with a woman (played by Mollie) that had faded into calm, broken silence. The catch? From “Gravity”: “Whether or not we planned it / This birth is now a planet / A mass we must orbit around.” There’s a kid.

The story is simple, which is good, because concept albums -- another term we should rightfully regard with horror -- should tell simple stories. Leave real plots to the real storytelling arts, I say, and let music use story as a starting point. Chris’ great journey takes place over a single day, and in the end all he’s managed to do is fall asleep in a motel with the baby nearby. All of this is narrated in Chris’ difficult timbre, congested but loose, like Mr. Lif channeling a drunk punk on an acoustic guitar. He sings words bluntly emotive (“God is a superficial fuck”) and strangely beautiful: “In paladin skin there’s no protection / A corrosive core would cease to exist / Listless though it is” being the way he describes some early morning soul-searching.

Of course, all this description only does so much, and there are three red track names to your left begging to do the talking instead. These songs are hosted not because they’re the best or catchiest on The Palm Tree, but because they’re picked exclusively for where they fall in the album’s progress, to show the arc and breadth of sound crammed into the small corners of this spinning record. “Slow Sunrise” is the fuzzy orchestral introduction, and if on the first few listens you’re surprised to hear erectile dysfunction sung about with such tenderness, just imagine your reaction when you realize his dick has nothing to do with it. Check the woozy Neutral Milk brass blowing beneath the hyped and easy pop stomp of “Transition Trade” -- this track, too, ends in an incandescent declaration of emotional emptiness, but this trend isn’t a formula, it’s a build-up to the dreamy resolution that comes in the record’s final quarter. And while “Trade” resolves in regal bugle calls, “Waltz” meets its sad, sanguine conclusion with whalesongs burbling beneath the narrator’s decision, finally, to leave. After that, shit gets real real, and you’re gonna need your own copy of the record if you want to hear it.

And so, yes, here I am, loving a record that adorably transforms “I wonder if you care at all” into “I wonder if you care at ah ah ah ah choo!” But that anticlimactic sneeze happens only once, and as such can’t really grow grating, in the same way that the music occasionally takes off to blinding heights for ten tantalizing seconds: the cartwheeling riff that closes “Nowhere” after two spins, the accordion dragonfire that reinvigorates “Mice Eyes,” the dance party that sparks unexpectedly in “The First Step.” This record feels like the dusty and random rooms in which its creators recorded and its characters argue, the dimensions plain and obvious. It is a cube with furniture in it, it is a record with drums and guitars. But that these emotions and instruments and rooms come to such electrified life is an alchemical achievement. Color me as confused as anyone that some unknown, twee-leaning folk duo just made one of the most interesting records of the year, a tornado of sadness and hope.