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September 2001 Pick of the Month

Sunday's Best
Artist: Ticklepenny Corner
Label: Spasm Tyrant
Length: 12 tracks, 50:40

There are several remarkable aspects to Sunday's Best by Ticklepenny Corner and to some extent, they all have to do with the way the band capture the extremes of human experience. Noah Riemer's lyrics portray the comedy as well as the tragedy inherent within everyday thoughts and events. Sounding a bit like Mike Knott, his voice operates with a subtlety made poignant by his enthusiastic bursts of energy. And sounding a bit like Allison Kraus, Beth Spransy's vocals communicate a sad and longing beauty complemented by her fine sense of comic timing. Arrangements with very nice string work, most notably violin playing by Spransy, alternate with elements that range from experimental to reassuring and traditional.

Sunday's Best is only Ticklepenny Corner's second full-length album but their sound is complicated and impressive. Blending the sound of Over the Rhine with the alternative country of early Son Volt or Wilco, Riemer paints complex portraits of simple people (not unlike Terry Taylor in his recent Avocado Faultline). As noted, the emotional register at work within Sunday's Best ranges widely from songs that seem comical to those that make grown men pretend not to cry. However, while some songs contain enough one-liners to deserve a laugh track, the comedy is always informed by a sense of the poignant reality behind it all. Riemer never takes cheap shots (even at himself).

With well-drawn characters, the songs examine human fallibility and the way fallibility makes us all look funny. In "The Bells Are Ringing (Again)," the focus is on a woman who remains unsatisfied with her every marriage (but of course, she never gives up on marriage itself). After cataloguing the many marriages, a chorus of voices join in as if singing a bar song. Despite the musical swell at the end, the eminently singable chorus includes the kernel of sadness that propels the song: "She looks so pretty but I hope that look never fades." Describing this woman on her marriage day (again), the obvious fact is that the happiness will fade much too soon.

"Wrong Kind of Prayers" contains the laundry list Christians often form in their heads consisting of things somewhere between dreamy wishes and earnest prayers: "Lord, I want a shiny, red car . . . I'll drive it around the block / Lord, I won't go far . . . And that ole neighbor of mine is so pesty, mean, and frightening / Oh Lord, do you have any spare bolts of lightning? Despite the comical nature of those wishes, the chorus consists of questions about every life of prayer: "Oh Lord, did you hear what we said? / Oh Lord, how come David's foes always got dead? . . . Oh Lord, to our words give ear / Oh Lord, gimmie here." The serious nature of these funny questions is indicated by the plaintive musical bridge showcasing Spransy on violin. And the large question left lingering is whether what we currently regard as the "right kind of prayers" is any less comical in the grand scheme.

Unlike the clichéd treatment of emotions so often heard on the radio, these songs are layered. While they can be regarded as catchy tunes (some with musical and lyrical hooks), they require repeated listening. Using her voice delicately, Spransy works over a believer's joy and frustration with belief in this world in "Seems a Little Weak." At one level a sad song of one person's longing for something beyond weariness, the lyrics allow enough space for the listener to fit into the space formed by the "I" singing.

Riemer is a master of the unsaid. As the closing song from which the album's title is drawn, "Today Is Sunday" operates on principle similar to that of "Seems a Little Weak." While a reminiscence of a childhood fill of church-going, the song manages to evoke a sentimental love of simpler times without directly describing the sentiment. For adults listening to this song, observations of an unquestioning child are inevitably tinged by questions of why things were the way they were (and why those things were good). With a focus on the story, Riemer's rambling vocal delivery allows the story to speak for itself and designs characters vaguely recognizable. One the whole, Sunday's Best walks the fine line established by masterful storytellers; it provides enough detail for listeners to see the stories as their own.

Terry Wandtke  8/28/2001 



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