Music By the Humbled, For the Humbled

Paul Erlichman (Elrichman) talks Randy Newman, The Roches, and Sparks.

I’ve always been intrigued by artists who put themselves at the level of the listener, or maybe even make themselves a bit despicable or pitiable. They aren’t larger than life, and they purposely undercut themselves. 

I started listening to current music in the late ‘90s, when the guitar music my friends and the TV told me was cool was extremely earnest and angry — music calling out to people who wanted to break stuff, or who felt like a freak on a leash. I tended to listen to the mopier versions of this: Canadian rock bands with thousand-metre (“eh”) stares that I’ve been afraid to listen to since I turned 17 for fear that my teenage emotions will sweep over me and I’ll suddenly be wearing a baggy polar fleece sweater.

As I got older and realized I hadn’t already listened to all the good music (I may actually have listened to all the bad music), I started to gravitate towards songwriters who I was able to identify with for their perspective and sense of humour, and their ability to put themselves down in their music to some purpose. They could either do this through character sketches, like Sparks and Randy Newman, or have it come from a more earnest place like The Roches. What I liked is that none of these artists were afraid to make themselves look foolish, but they weren’t wallowing in self-pity. You could sometimes hear them wink at the listener, and they were maybe hedging their bets towards being regarded as serious artists. Any profundity coming from the music almost seemed accidental. And if it wasn’t an accident, I wanted to figure out how they were doing it.

Sparks took a lot of chances in this regard. They looked just enough like standard rockstars, if you squinted hard enough and plugged your ears, but most of their songs from their classic glam era — Kimono My House to Big Beat — were about not being macho enough to handle the expectations of the era’s rockstars, be it seducing women (“Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her”), fighting (“Big Boy”), individuality (“I Want to Be Like Everybody Else”) or the need to assert masculinity itself (“I Like Girls”). None of it’s overly goofy or overly obscure, and the underlying point of every song doesn’t take long to get. And of course, all of these songs slap. Big Beat is the record where they lean into it the most, and it’s one where they finally succumb to punching down rather than punching themselves, and so songs like “White Women” and “Throw Her Away (And Get a New One)” feel cruel, even if the point is to take rock’s chauvinism to its logical extreme. They quickly stopped a-rockin after this, and some of their later hits like “Sherlock Holmes” continue the thread of frontman Russell Mael being the deserved underdog.

Randy Newman is maybe the songwriter of the last 50 years who says the most with the fewest words (I hated that rambling Randy bit in Family Guy). He’s another artist with whom you’ve got to take the good with the bad. I always took “Rednecks” to be Newman, who seems to be a white liberal, pointing out white liberal hypocrisy. But the perspective here is too muddy: Here’s a white Jewish guy from California, posing as a white Southerner and using racist language to point out his own hypocrisy? It doesn’t work, and the song’s chorus makes the song unplayable. The best Newman songs are when he sketches a believable character and totally inhabits it, which he’s so good at perhaps because he never really cultivated his own image. His characters are relatable, not because they are down on their luck, but because they’re easy to read. The characters in “Guilty” and “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” know they’ve hit rock-bottom. Conversely, the characters in “Memo to My Son” and “So Long Dad” (probably the most breezily heartbreaking song about the passage of time ever written) seem blind to their problems or others’, and because these songs are so deeply written from the characters’ perspective you never hear the wink — just Randy Newman’s big wink in the sky.

There’s less of an obvious pose with The Roches, three very underrated songwriters of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s New York scene with instantaneously recognizable unaffected vocals that swoop in and out of harmony with one another. The sisters’ songwriting is so diverse in focus and perspective that they’re impossible to pigeonhole, but a unifying element of many of their songs is a willingness to show a kind of guarded vulnerability. When they ask “do we know anybody famous?” on the first track of their debut record, I take it as them not only poking fun of how the average male listener or music critic might treat them, but them telling you that no matter how much they’ll devastate you, you should never take them too seriously. There are cheerful depictions of: crawling back to your boss (“Mr. Sellack”); being bullied (“Nurds”); getting killed by a vengeful laundromat employee (“The Death of Suzzy Roche”); and being a big nuthin’ (“Big Nuthin”). My favourite songs like “Runs in the Family” and “My Sick Mind” position singer Terre as not being in control of her own destiny, which feels kind of rare in pop music, where generally the only thing that has power over you is love. I find Roches songs so relatable because the narrators don’t always drive their own story, which feels both real and very un-rock & roll.

I try to internalize all these modes of writing when I write a song. Not to speak to the quality of anything I write, but it’s always felt very easy for me to slip into a character and present a perspective. My new record Heaven’s Mayor is full of this: “Seeking Grey Skies” is from a person content with being sour; “Restrain Me” is from a person that feels totally lost and flailing; “The Man Cannot Say No” from a guy whose inability to refuse anything gets him into trouble; “Cop On a Horse” is basically an exercise in perspective. If I’m half as good as any of the artists above at bringing these characters to life, then I’d be very happy. And of course, there is a lot of myself in these characters, so they should feel lived in.

I also think that low-key music speaks to this day and age where it’s very difficult to make a living playing music. The idea of your favourite local musician being larger than life takes a hit when you see them waiting tables or working in an office. As difficult as this relative lack of financial success for musicians is, I think it leads to a kinder music community. Even if they were famous enough that we’re still talking about them decades later, the music of Sparks, The Roches, and Randy Newman feels like a musical embodiment of this: creative and intriguing music by the humbled, for the humbled.

(Photo Credit: Chelsee Ivan)

The Toronto-based sophisti-pop artist Elrichman — the project of Paul Erlichman — is set to release his new album, Heavens Mayor on April 24, 2020 via Madrid-based label, Bobo Integral. Following his work as part of Goosebump (formally Germaphobes), Erlichman, who also plays in the jangle-pop quartet, Ducks Unlimited, recorded the new album with producer, Alex Gamble (Fucked Up, Alvvays). It’s the first record under the Elrichman moniker since 2014’s Young, Healthy, and Wonderful and finds further contributions from members of Hooded Fang (Jon Pappo), Weaves (Zach Bines) and Twisted Pine (Anh Phung).

Recorded at Toronto’s recently closed studios, The Hive, Heavens Mayor looks to meticulously examine how to be honest with oneself in a world driven by consumption. It’s a theme that somewhat ironically resonates with the story of The Hive and many other ephemeral studios and venues across Toronto’s scene, being closed, removed and then replaced with condominiums or clothing stores. The level of rapport Elrichman demonstrates with himself is something he reflects onto a wider world context too. Whereas previously his writing has invoked the use of character sketches, Heavens Mayor, amongst its gorgeous string sections and ’80s indie-pop, unabashedly portrays who he is as an artist. “I guess I’m at a point where I feel more comfortable putting myself in my songs,” he says. “It’s also kind of about feeling ridiculous being a male guitar-playing singer-songwriter in this age when lord knows there’s been enough of us.”

(Photo Credit: Chelsee Ivan)