Pathos at the Water Cooler

Jess Rowland — The Problem with the Soda Machine (Edgetone, 2008)

source: edgetone records.comI can’t be the only one who’s had this experience. Sometimes a pop song will stick in my head, and I’ll learn the chorus by heart and sing along every time. But the verses don’t absorb on the first, third, or tenth listens. Then, one day, I look up the lyrics, and — oh my god. The song’s about that??

I’m guessing — hoping, really — that people have a similar experience with Jess Rowland’s songs on The Problem with the Soda Machine.

It opens with “The Future of the Machines,” a pretty and likable bit of ’70s-styled rock, which chimes along, almost like a soda commercial: “We are faced / We are faced / with a choice about the future.” And if you listen a little further, you’ll hear it’s about “the future of the machines.” Sounds deep. But if you caught the first words of the song (or already read the description on the CD cover, no fair!), you realize it’s not about society and mankind, but about the soda machine, and the fact that the soda machine company isn’t making enough money off of this particular office.

Rowland’s concept album uses a chain of real office e-mails for its lyrics — and yes, the concept is the pondering and hand-wringing that went along with the possible changes in the vending machine environment in general. As anyone who’s worked in an office knows, these discussions always end up in self-serious digressions that hit bottom when someone throws in a literary quote. If you’re like me, you’ll feel the occasional urge to reach through the music and punch the e-mail writers.

But you’ll also be amused. You have to love a song that starts with, “If they would take the trouble to put in things that people want, they might make a go of it,” with the words awkwardly crammed together to fit a meter.

The ’70s air sticks throughout the album, a kind of pleasantly poppy prog rock — not “prog” in terms of aggressive complexity, but in the breezy chords favored by Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright, for instance. When Rowland adds organ to the piano/bass/drums/guitars mix, it definitely tickles the prog cortex. Other songs carry a friendly, 1973 FM-radio air.

I think the point is to bring a faux haughty seriousness to these dopey words; these are melodies that suggest grand lovey themes (which, back in 1973, were overblown to begin with). “Changing Their Tune” even touches on glam seriousness, and has the highlight of the words “cup o’ noooodles” sung in deadpan seriousness.

In terms of lyrical style, Soda Machine bears some similarity to the puppet opera that Rowland presented at this year’s Outsound New Music Summit. Soda Machine is based on catchier, less “classical”-sounding melody, and it doesn’t have the underlying sinister air (well, sometimes, like when the sitar and electronics come in on the opening track). It’s less overtly absurd, but still absurd. And the songs are fun to sing along with.

While listening, I felt compelled to check out what’s happening at Deadpan Inc. It’s a quasi-animated blog of small office discussions about recent news items. The fact that they’re in an office is mostly irrelevant, but the blog still feels like a soul brother to Soda Machine.