Corey Dargel (website | MySpace | blog) has a nice backstory: classical training (as the saying goes) allows him to be reviewed by Anthony Tommasini and write serious manifestos for NewMusicBox (the big one, the more modest early one), but he also lets his pop instincts lead him to a twisted confluence of art song and electronic pop and offbeat publicity photos. Less Famous Than You embodies Dargel's artsongwriter concept: he writes music, then sets his own words to them. Thus, lyricist, singer/songwriter and composer cohabit without fusing.
Corey's singing is affecting without much emoting. The distance thus created indicates that these are portraits rather than confessions. The cover art shows us his viewpoint: observing those who are looking at others more worthy of recognition. For example, the joy of "Glasses" is sung in much the same way as the loss and loneliness of "I Don't Remember." "Change The World" is the exception to the rule: his voice turns listless and drags sadly when evoking a situation closer to his own life.
Most songs are about mental disorders, obsessions or psychological violence of some sort (kind of like Gnarls Barkley, actually). This is unsurprising, given that Dargel has also written a series of songs based on the effects of prescription drugs. Stalkers, fan(atic)s, exploited child stars, jilted lovers and others illustrate a media and pharmaceutical system that generates or exacerbates individuals' weaknesses.
The music is often an intricate weaving of superposed keyboard parts and beats that range from staticky to euro-house. It has a certain brand of well-crafted sloppiness: elements are positioned so as to create the illusion of being a little out-of-sync and disturbances bubble just under the surface. The densely-layered melodies are quietly exuberant in their orchestration and profusion, betraying a warm, beating heart underneath a cool exterior. Dargel's deadpan is thus emphasised but also lent crucial shading.
Logically, Corey manipulates the conventions of pop like a native but also subverts them like an outsider. "Glasses" combines bright - almost naïve - 80s synths with slippery beats in 9. All songs are of pop-ideal length, hovering around the 3 minute mark, but the slowly unfurling narratives and frequent lack of oft-repeated choruses go counter to the time constraint and create a kind of laid-back tension. The distinction between the metaphorical and the concrete is often blurred, which allows Corey to be neither obvious nor cryptic while creating complex stories. Still, even the most elusive song can suddenly drop a hard-hitting line like "Since when does disability equal a lack of devotion?"
It's not all about subversion, though. "Boy Detective" is a perfect demonstration of Dargel's intimate acquaintance with the myriad minute details that make pop music work: here, that means a hollowed-out effect on his voice and neat, touching, synth-driven hooks.
Despite music and lyrics being conceived independently, some tracks sound quasi-programmatic. In "Like A Ghost," the narrator's complaint that his lover is concealing his/her true nature and constant celebration of his partner's weaknesses goes from righteous to oppressive, a way to control rather than support. This is echoed by the way Corey seems to deliberately warp and distort his usually gorgeous keyboards into grotesque shapes. On the wistful "Change The World," as Dargel sings about reuniting a former band, the track's instrumentation grows from a solo act to a full band.
There's room for humour too. It comes in pinches, such as the Madonna-ish oops-I-didn't-know-we-couldn't-talk-about-that way he says "sex" on "Global World View" or the computer-enhanced high-note on the chorus of "The News" (an ascending line that peaks on "untrue"), or in dollops: pretty much the whole of "Gay Cowboys"' epic road trip and "Every Word..."'s triumphant finale that mockingly underlines the main character's spiralling delusions.
Finally, I don't really recognise any of the famous or semi-famous who are described or obsessed over, but I have a probably totally wrong theory that "Global World View" is about a repressed love affair with Osama Bin Laden: "Now you're playing it safe/Staying in your cave," "They said you're a threat to my freedom," "I have to stop making out checks to your organisation."
For more, see Darcy and The Rambler's reviews.