Review Summary: sElf, ironically, "Paints By Numbers" to Appease Prior Commercial Failures to Surprisingly Good Results
After the lukewarm-mixed reception of the 1999 album Breakfast With Girls
. (which in later years has grown more positive) and the similarly mixed reception of their 2000 experimental album Gizmodgery
. sElf quietly worked on their next follow up. In the years prior to the album’s completion sElf released a comedy "remix" album, sElf Goes Shopping
, and a B-Sides compilation, Selfafornia
, both released for free on their website. Their commercial followup Ornament & Crime
, was scheduled for release in 2004. Unfortunately for a multitude of reasons, both economical and personal, the album’s release date was never met and after one more free compilation album (which ironically included the B-sides from the unreleased album) sElf disappeared from the public eye.
Now why does this history lesson matter" The album has technically already been “released” via sElf’s official YouTube channel and on their MySpace account prior to 2017 however it is only now that the album is getting a proper physical release in July 2017 so with that date approaching it is time to take a critical eye to sElf's (currently) final album.
Ornament & Crime
could be considered to be the spiritual successor to their debut album Subliminal Plastic Motives
. Both come off as a straightforward collection of radio friendly alternative rock songs. However in this case it also, at times, becomes a self-aware parody of the alternative rock scene however at other times it falls into its own trap that lacks the interesting flairs from Breakfast With Girls
to keep it consistently afloat.
This comparison between their debut and Ornament & Crime
do not stop at the overall picture though as the opening track, ”Hellbent", follows an almost distractedly similar structure to the opening track on their debut. That is not to discredit the song though as even with these parallels Matt Mahaffey’s songwriting chops still shine throughout the track telling a dark story about a man who is currently facing his final judgement to either enter hell or enter heaven. The dark lyrics are counterbalanced by an almost carnival styled pre-chorus section which gives the entire song a very carefree yet heavy tone.
Mahaffey’s vocal chops on Ornament & Crime
are the clear highlight of the album even if it isn’t used to its fullest potential. On the track "Pathetic Song" his voice soars through the chorus with such confidence and power that it should have been used as the base for the other songs. Unfortunately this is not the case, "Out With a Bang" is a song that both musically and lyrically demands the very same confident and powerful vocal performance that Mahaffey clearly showcased he could do, however he instead decides to go back to the typical sElf delivery by using his laid-back style that simply does not stack up to what had been shown earlier in the album.
Musically the album is entertaining, with well performed songs and usually good lyrics, however one can not ignore the fact that sElf’s sound feels much more watered down here to its original “90s alt-rock” origins instead of the quirky musical feast that was Breakfast With Girls
. This is ironic though as the track on the prior album, "Paint By Numbers"
, calls out this type of toned-down-for-success songwriting that Ornament & Crime
is riddled with. “Alone I compose a bittersweet ditty/About an ex-girlfriend” ...”Why tear out my heart for all the world to see"/Why not paint by numbers/Catchy melody/Burn it up the charts with sweet simplicity”
Yet the second track on Ornament & Crime
, "Emotional" he does exactly this, “I get emotional/You get emotional too/As long as we know it's all because/They all told me that you wanna break up”
Later, on the track "Can’t Go On", Mahaffey paints an equally similar story, “Damn you for loving me/I can't go on now knowing you exist”
This is of course goes without mentioning how almost sickeningly sweet "Can’t Go On" is musically. The track embodies the most radio friendly ballad that you could ever force out of sElf which comes off as completely out of character. Of course, even at the album's worst lyrical point it could still be considered “passable” and no way tethers on ‘unlistenable’ or ‘laughable.’
However, in a totally different context listeners will laugh at other songs on the album that contain a strong mixture of parody and sarcasm that mocks the double standard previously painted by "Emotional" and "Can’t Go On". The pinnacle of this parody and sarcastic style is seen in the song ironically following the latter track, "Grow Up". Where Mahaffey sings, “all i get are recorded tones / when i call you on the telephone / it says ‘i'll call the police if you don't leave me alone’ / i don't know what I've done”
These lyrics, which play on top of a ballad-esque piano, shine as it perfectly parodies the songs criticized in "Paint By Numbers".The previously mentioned "Pathetic Song" also has a sense of parody that plays along with "Grow Up". The lyrics show themselves to be so corny and self-aware that it works as both a typical love song and a parody of said love song. “Jello / You make my heart feel like jello / Inside I'm all green, orange and yellow / Whenever I'm near you.”
Going off of this idea of parody and sarcasm the album ends with the confusing track, "La Radio". It is a 2 and a half minute interlude to a follow up song that never comes. The track goes through various short 3-5 second “songs” that are separated by various radio artifacts and station DJ’s. The joke is that every song takes cues from the popular music at the time and includes very self-aware lyrics to help make it a facade of the music scene in the early 2000s. The track goes from a piano ballad that includes the lyrics “I have been milking”
and seconds later transforms to a very minimal electronic jig that includes, “I pulled out my jimmy to the queen of England.”
The track’s over abundance on its theatrics make it a hard to sell for a listen in the conventional sense as any other song on the album, however the track is completely and utterly harmless and does indeed bring me to a chuckle every listen.
Of course, with arguments of parody, double standards, and confusing theatrics aside the album still delivers that distinctive sElf that leaves listeners entertained regardless of lyrical shortcomings. "The Pounding Truth" and "Out With a Bang" showcase a satisfying level of musicianship that layer themselves to paint a unique atmosphere. The former using layered vocals to help give a grand feeling of self reflection and the latter using an acoustic guitar build to give an end of the world feeling, which lyrically the song is about.
Ornament & Crime
abruptly ends on an unsatisfying note that makes the entire package feel ultimately incomplete. Coming off of the hot rich heels that was the self-reflective critical Breakfast With Girls
and the playfully experimental Gizmodgery
, Ornament & Crime
feels like not much more as a “paint by numbers” album to help cope with the commercial failure of both albums. Don’t get me wrong, the album is still an entertaining listen and musically still contains that sElf charm that made Breakfast With Girls
such a musical success however the double standard that Mahaffey mistakenly paints here ultimately becomes the album's biggest crime.