In the spirit of full disclosure, while I’ve never met the man in person, I’ve been online friends with Dolph Chaney for well on 15 years. He’s seen my ups and downs and I’ve seen his, and somehow, here we are. It has been heartwarming to watch his recent success, almost like that of a family member achieving their ambitions after a long climb upward to get there.
But now I have his latest CD, Mug, in my hands. I know what I need to do with this, but not without a little trepidation. What if I don’t like it? What if it sucks?
Obviously, if either of those were true, you would not be reading this now, but should you trust my opinion with my biases clearly exposed? (Actually, they were exposed some time ago when I spoke with Dolph on this site about his album, Rebuilding Permit, but I digress…) I certainly hope so, for while so many have been mourning pop/rock with the phrase, “They just don’t make ’em like they used to,” here it is. One they made like they used to.
Specifically, Chaney as primary songwriter, and co-conspirator Nick Bertling as his personal mad multi-instrumental scientist, give spark to a collection of tunes developed over decades which are informed by the same spirit of ’70s-ish pop that inspired musicians like Matthew Sweet and Velvet Crush. “Informed,” not beholden to. Chaney also infuses his narratives with a light touch, even when the topics verge on the heavier parts of life. You can intuit the occasional aura of Barenaked Ladies around his concoctions while, at all steps, being himself.
Album opener “Nice” bobs and weaves a few self-deprecating haymakers through a satisfying thicket of edgy guitars, chronicling the loneliness of the nice guy who we’ve been told is doomed to finish last. He knows it, too, for while he is considerate to one and all, he’s not getting too far with that. “Finishing last inside my head, once even finished last in bed, and on my tombstone, two words…’Dead – nice.’
“Good Luck With All That” recounts a love relationship that, try as one might to walk on those eggshells, tiptoe around emotional landmines, and hope things get better, simply don’t. “I’m not undone, just done with being a diplomat,” Chaney confesses. The song moves from tenuous to incendiary toward the back half. I mentioned this album was in the pop/rock vein, so file this under that latter part of the category.
My personal favorite from the album is “Undone,” which acts as a sort of sequel to “Good Luck…” and finds the protagonist rejecting his doormat destiny for real. It has quite the charge to it, in melody and no-nonsense tempo, and somewhere in heaven Tommy Keene is smiling down, saying, “Thank you, Dolph.”
As you may have surmised, there is a thread weaving these songs together even if it is not a concept record outright. The intention is clear. As Thomas Walsh once sang, “It’s nice to be nice,” but you don’t have to make yourself the tragic figure of your own novel. Also, you can express these thoughts and emotions without devolving into third-string emo wallowing.
This tightrope walk is made manifest by the visual puns that comprise the CD packaging. The front is a standalone image of Chaney’s headshot on a mug – his mug on a mug, as it were. The back has him slackjawed and stunned in a police mugshot. It is a literal interpretation of the light and dark of the record without getting so heavy that you’d reject trying it out strictly on sight. Someone remarked that this approach reminded them of the early Sparks albums where the Mael brothers were depicted comically in some harrowing scenarios. That’s about right.
Yeah, nice guys are known to finish last. They hold the doors for others that would never bother the same for them. They stay in relationships that will forever bear negative fruit, or die on the vine. They make songs for years and years that most often will never be heard or appreciated by others. That does not seem to be the fate for Dolph Chaney or Mug.
You know what to do. https://bigstirrecords.com/dolph-chaney