Every now and again, you happen upon an artist whose stellar output and formidable back catalog encourages reflections on why they’re still working the underground circuit while acts like Coldplay and Carly Rae Jepsen are granted the privilege of infiltrating our daily lives with their paint-by-numbers pop. Indeed, the capricious listening habits and tastes of the general public have made it practically impossible over the years for mainstream success in music to seem like anything other than an arbitrary phenomenon. I could very easily see this morphing into a diatribe on the perverted state of the record industry or how the Internet’s ubiquitous torrent of free music has turned music consumerism completely inside out, but well, that’s a screed for another time. My intention here today is to shine a light on one particular musician whose boundless creativity and undeniable zeal for his craft is precisely the reason why I and so many other music fans often find ourselves shouting “unfair” at those whose songs top the charts.
Brooklyn’s Mark Lesseraux hasn’t always had the joy of being able to call music his day job, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to his latest release, Transmissions (2003-2012). An exhaustive collection of more than a decade’s worth of songwriting exploits, this generously assembled 80-minute set is comprised of new and old solo compositions, b-sides, live cuts, and songs from his band the Citizens. Many people – myself included – would be unlikely to pony up the dough for an album that includes so much previously released material, but even those who consider themselves Lesseraux aficionados would do well to spend some time with this double-album-on-a-single-disc compendium; bands with far deeper discographies don’t evolve and adapt to the degree that Lesseraux does over these 22 tracks.
Transmissions begins on a note of familiarity, with the lo-fi jangle of “Everybody Here Is Going to Die,” originally featured on Lesseraux’s 2008 LP, Low Cool. Though four year old, the track is still a cogent reminder of Lesseraux’s uncanny knack for deftly fusing gloomy observations on the human condition with dashes of comedy. “This is no time to be bashful or aloof,” we are gently reminded as guitars are happily strummed and strings add sprightly harmonies. The album’s first half also features “Fits and Starts,” which showcases Lesseraux in a more palpable shoegaze setting, replete with fuzzed out bass, delay-affected vocals, and assembled bits of white noise. In what appears to be a treatise on the cyclical nature of human successes and failures, Lesseraux sings, “I lost all sense of direction / I spent a thousand years finding one / I spent another thousand getting lost again / fits and starts.”
The newest cuts on the record prove that Lesseraux’s penchant for varied songcraft has only sharpened with time. “Piggy Went” is a goofy and uninhibited variation on the infamous English nursery rhyme that abounds with percussive jauntiness and caterwauling screams. “When There’s No More Fear” is a Bill Withers-styled piano elegy, tender in both execution and sentiment (“ When there’s no more fear / you won’t have to run for shelter / as the shrapnel flies / in the absent helter skelter”). “Mother of Pearl” is an unhinged bluesy union of Kinks-worthy riffage and Jack White sass. “Mona Lisa 2011” takes the centuries-old conundrum of Da Vinci’s painting and sets it to a ghostly amalgam of sparse piano chords and moaning string suspensions. “It’s Good to Be Alive” channels some lighthearted “Here Comes the Sun” optimism, while “Occupy” takes on a political overtone by examining the societal implications of last September’s OWS movement in lowerManhattan.
The remaining material on Transmissions is no less engaging. The tunes chosen to represent Lesseraux’s stint as the frontman for Citizens suggest predilections with psychedelic music and power pop in equal measure; “Are We There Yet” and “Kaleidoscope (Do You Recall?)” give off a gentle ambience with their undulating textures, while “Bluster” and “Catch You on the Way Down” shimmer and crackle with confidence.
Of the add-on numbers, it’s the live rendering of “Giuseppe Desa’s Blues” which commands the most attention. Allegedly a song inspired by a mildly retarded 18th century monk, Lesseraux takes what could be a standup comedy schtick and turns it into a legit showcase for vocal improvisations and even a Robert Plant imitation.
Going back to my original point, there’s no viable reason I can conjure that would explain why Mark Lesseraux isn’t more of a household name at this point in time. The lyrics are witty, his melodies are infectious, and Lesseraux’s demeanor isn’t a far cry from that of a certain sarcasm and irony-laden pianist who recently found himself on the judges’ panel of a reality TV show. I could go on and on, but the music speaks for itself; pick up a copy of Transmissions and experience for yourself the talents of a true hidden gem in popular songwriting.