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Turner Cody is one of those unlucky artists whose music is pigeon-holed, not as a result of its style or content, but as a result of the circles he moves in. His portrayal of Will Oldham in a 2005 Jeffrey Lewis video inevitably labels him with the ‘anti-folk’ tag, and in many ways his nine-album career supports this presumption. But his latest release, Gangbusters! is less anti-folk and more pro-melancholic chamber pop.
With horns borrowed from Beirut (stylistically and quite literally, played as they are by Jon Natchez and Kelly Pratt), this album does much more to assert itself than the ‘anti-folk’ label lets on. Cody remains restrained in his guitar playing, strumming lightly rather than stabbing furiously, but the brass and occasional blues electric give his whole sound a rich texture that hums with professionalism. Whereas the charm of the likes of Jeffrey Lewis is the sense that the listener could just as easily be in his shoes, the impression that Turner Cody leaves is one of an increasingly eloquent songwriter. He feels like more than a guy with a guitar.
This comes across early on Gangbusters! as ‘Back In The Land Of The Living’ plods soulfully towards an understatedly punchy chorus. The brass makes its entrance with a swagger reminiscent of Adam Green’s ‘Morning After Midnight’, but in a far less over-the-top fashion. Green is in fact an obvious reference point for Cody, as they both seem to share an unrealised big band ambition. Their songs (in recent years, at least) share an intrinsic aversion to gimmicks, focussing instead on old-fashioned ideas like structure, harmony and concise articulation.
Where Cody doesn’t match up to Adam Green however, is vocally. Most obviously, he doesn’t have the same witty way with words. More generally though, it can be said that Green either shows immense bravery or intense imagination when it comes to bearing his surreal, warped soul on record. Cody, on the other hand, doesn’t let his personality inject the same vivacity into his music. His approach to melody too, isn’t quite as refined. His vocal lines tend to hover around the same two or three notes, following circular patterns that, admittedly, scratch an itch when they hum with completeness. But while this creates a distinctive style for Cody, it begins to drag after a couple of tracks.
Fortunately, ‘The Only One I Had Is Gone’ sets a more sinister tone and gives Cody the confidence push his voice a little further, making for a performance with far more feeling. This is bettered on ‘Forever Hold’, where the verses are almost spoken. The freedom this technique offers makes this the most human moment on Gangbusters! and finds Cody sounding more like himself than the esteemed songwriter he strives to be.
In a way, this is the problem with Gangbusters! Clearly, Cody wants to be taken seriously, and takes pained steps to avoid emotional hyperbole. As a consequence, his songs tend to be a little maudlin, but lack the passion to pull it off convincingly. The result is that a few of the tracks here are simply forgettable, while others are downright silly – ‘Big Surprise’ sounds like Camera Obscura tackling the theme music from Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Listen to Gangbusters! and you won’t regret the lost half hour. This is, after all, a solid album of melancholy, slightly folky, slightly twee pop songs. However, despite a few standout tracks, Turner Cody doesn’t sell himself as a songwriting genius with complete conviction.