A Long-Overdue Retrospective From the Greatest Songwriter You Might Not Know
Back in the radio-and-records era, it was common for a band to put out a greatest-hits album to fulfill their obligation to the label in order to get out of a record deal. Mark Breyer, longtime leader of cult favorite powerpop band Skooshny, put his together to get a record deal. Which makes sense in a way: Breyer is nothing if not counterintuitive. The album, Matchless Gifts – out from Kool Kat Musik and streaming at Bandcamp – is a lavish, smartly assembled double-cd compilation of the best tracks he’s released since 2006 under the name Son of Skooshny, often in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Steve Refling. For those new to the Breyer songbook, this is as good a way as any to get to know one of the greatest songwriters alive, and it’s one of the best albums of 2017.
The layers of jangly guitars and dreamy sonics draw obvious comparisons to Australian psychedelic/spacerock legends the Church, reinforced by Breyer’s brilliant lyrics – his double entendres and wordplay rank with the Church’s Steve Kilbey, and Elvis Costello, and Rachelle Garniez. And the songs are catchy beyond belief, drawing on decades of clang and twang – Carl Newman is another reference point. Yet Breyer’s catalog doesn’t really evoke any band other than his old one. This guy is a real individualist, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who might take you by surprise.
And much as Breyer can’t resist a good pun – it’s impossible to count all of them here – these songs are sad. The devil is always in the details: Breyer has a rare eye for them. The one that might rip your face off more than any of the others, The Subtle Eye, is actually a brisk, balmy number and one of the gentlest songs here:
Teddy lifts me to a cloud
To protect me from an angry crowd
We sit and watch the spectacle below
Teddy died too young for her to go
See, Teddy is a dog. She appears in a dream, after appearances by now-deceased parents who, if these cameos are characteristic, were real cheerful earfuls (NOT). Humans will betray you, but many other species won’t. And they care enough about you to visit you after they’re gone, if only to let you know that they’re ok. In his last verse, Breyer promises to do the same: who knows what the subtle eye can see, right?
The boisterous opening anthem, Just a Test is irresistibly funny, but quaint diner food turns out to have a surprise in it, and eventually Breyer declares that “I want the other actors dead instead !” He’s referring to a tv show, but obviously there’s more to it.
“You left a note on my door, I found the footnote on the floor,” he announces as Spine, a big, enveloping seduction athem gets underway: foreshadowing is a huge part of Breyer’s M.O. A picturesque, bittersweetly romantic stroll through North Hollywood, No Ho may be conceptually funny – nobody walks in LA, right? – but you can see the ending coming a mile away, and it’s bleak.
Likewise, don’t let the blase calm 70s folk-pop sheen of Half of the World fool you. It deals with issues of perception and drunken yoga, with a coda that’s way too good to give away. Science Changes Everything, with its litany of math and physics metaphors, follows the same pattern, as does Dizzy – a dead ringer for the catchiest stuff on the Church’s Blurred Crusade album. “When more is less you use subtraction, reduce it to a fraction,” Breyer calmly intones.
His images invite plenth of debate. What does the object of affection In Mid-Century Modern do when she visits the justice of the peace? Regret, disillusion, and alienation bordering on despondency are everywhere. “I had that flat but it wasn’t home, you had a cat but you were alone,” Breyer relates in Sorry, another contrast between dreamy, Church-like sonics and richly imagistic, grim narrative.
Good Morning, Gail Warning may take place in an ashram kitchen, but Arthur Schlenger’s eerily reverberating guitars and keys are pure David Lynch soundtrack. “Troubles brew, bubbles rise,” Breyer relates in How Does It End, glistening nocturne swirling through an allusive tale of fractured family ties.
“Take apart your Japanese contraption – douse the charcoal, tear the plastic tent,” Breyer implores in Candy Air: meanwhile, the cat’s under the house and won’t come out. “May I remove your elevator shoes?” he asks in The Right Idea, backed by a plaintively lingering web of twelve-string guitars that leave no doubt how this story is going to end.
Some of these tracks rock pretty hard – Knee Deep, one of the few more optimistic anthems here; the surreal Kate’s Green Phone, which may or may not be about daydrinking and unrealistic expectations; the autobiographical Untold History, which traces an allusively harrowing Cold War childhood narrative; and Another Time, a Costello-esque account of dealing with somebody from outer space. And Bare Bones reaches toward classic punk blast and thud: it’s the closest thing to Breyer’s old band here.
In typical fashion, he saves some of the best songs for the bonus disc. Jeff Peters’ guitar nicks a familiar Angelo Badalementi film noir riff for the doomed trajectory of You Can’t Love Me:
Thank god you’re farsighted instead of near
It might be the only thing keeping you here
And Love’s Not Impossible, with Michael Meros’ hilarious early 80s pop quote, offers a tantalizing flicker of hope, even as the drizzle grows more impenetrable.
In the meantime, Breyer hasn’t slowed down. His latest single, The New South – presumably from yet another formidable album – has unexpected country flavor and a typically sardonic plotline.