To a Sleeping in the Aviary songbook that already included a country ditty written from the POV of a bullet blasting through a suicide’s mouth, a man worrying he might want to beat his unborn daughter for looking like her mother, car crashes, stalker freak-outs, and bloody heartstring-slicing anguish, last year’s “Great Vacation!” added an elegy for a lover who chokes to death on a ball gag, a mock-”Titanic” shipwreck that ends with gargle-drowning Method acting, and a blow job joke disguised as a swimming pool meet cute.
Disturbing, hilarious, tense verging on violent, and uh, really, really hilarious, these songs were vintage Sleeping in the Aviary riffs on love gone wrong, and the least surprising songs on an excellent album -- after all, “Maria’s Ghost,” “Last Kiss on a Sinking Ship,” and “Y.M.C.A (No Not That One),” had been live staples for the better part of two years (as had rueful closer “The Very Next Day I Died”). The surprise was that the band had given their garage punk scuzz a pop rock spit-shine. You felt less dirty laughing at poor Maria forgetting her safety word with a slide trombone underlining the punchlines. A surf rock beat and sing-a-long chorus bailed out the freewheeling greaser speed- freak terror of “You Don’t Have to Drive.” Not only did Sleeping in the Aviary tidy up their past, giving fan favorites a long-overdue pressing, but they also conducted wacko experiments like the spacey chamber pop of “Axes Ground Looth Tooth,” and added a new member, guitarist Kyle Sobczak.
In other words, “Great Vacation!” practically screamed, “Transition album! Transition album!” The Sleeping in the Aviary of “You and Me, Ghost” aren’t a whole new band, but if you weren’t a fan before, they’re not the same band that might have turned you off, grossed you out, or made you seriously contemplate killing yourself. They’ve buffed that spit-shine into a blinding, beautiful polish, and lead-singer Elliott Kozel has found less aggressive, more subtly rock-nerdy ways of expressing his simmering hipster rage. This isn’t any kind of a retreat, more like Sleeping in the Aviary realizing that they already recorded an S&M accidental homicide-love song. When you make your name by going too far, eventually you can’t go any further without repeating yourself, or parodying your greatest hits.
This band is way too smart to let that happen, and critically, Kozel is way too talented a writer. “Talking Out of Turn” opens the album with a rush of guitar strums that are bright, bouncy, and maybe just a tad too loud for the “Doo-doo-doos” in the background, and Kozel’s sweet longing for a girl he spots at a supermarket checkout lane. As always with SITA, something is a little off even before it goes way off-kilter, and as Kozel’s vocals get more frantic, more desperate, sure enough, it turns out he’s following this girl home, watching her run into the safe arms of another man. Still twisty, still creepy, but in that “Every Breath You Take” way that lets you appreciate the band’s mastery of retro melodies, drawing you into the universal, lovelorn ache that Kozel does so well.
Kozel does need to brush up on his Bro Code though: the swirl of lust and guilt and loneliness that comes with wanting someone else’s girl is the story of “You and Me, Ghost.” A startling guitar riff bends around corners like a police siren on “Love Police,” hunting down Kozel after he steals the girl, or, more likely, feels bad for even thinking about it. On the dreamy title track, Kozel makes an awkward pass at a party and feels so embarrassed that he flings himself off a tower and spends the next few weeks slipping in and out of consciousness, with only his ghost to keep him company. The “la la las” on “Someone Loves You” practically laugh right in Kozel’s face. “On the Way Home” starts out like a straightforward ‘50s rocker, but after Kozel tries to kiss a girl who -- surprise -- is at a party with another guy, one of the guitars staggers away by itself as Kozel grabs a beer and runs home, chugging and puking and laughing as he goes, and the whole song sounds like it might rattle apart.
None of these tunes rub your nose in icky emotions the way “Maria’s Ghost” or “Gas Mask Blues” did, so it’s harder to pretend like you’ve never felt these feelings. “You and Me, Ghost’s” birth-of-rock R&B, doo-wop, surf punk, and psychedelic psycho pop sings the songs left unsung on the oldie’s station -- the urges that couldn’t be soothed, or even described, the lines that couldn’t be crossed, the things that happened after someone spiked the punch at the sock hop, the unsanitized versions of the stories our parents told their parents when they came home after curfew. “Molly,” with its lovely guitar reverb and backing harmonies, sounds like it’s going to be a pitch-perfect crooner’s paean to that one special girl. Then Kozel starts singing to … Shauna? Molly is his second choice, and then he moves on to Julie, and so on, like he’s canvassing his entire Senior class for a prom date, looking for someone, ANYONE, to love him back. Still funny, still creepy, still desperate, but the ball gag stays hidden in the underwear drawer.
In the end, Sobczak finds his happily ever after on the beach bunny bounce of “Karen, You’re an Angel,” and poor Kozel is still alone, singing, “I’m so in love with someone else” on gorgeous closer “Pathetic Housewife Remembering Her First Martini.” Too bad one of the best records of the year can’t keep Kozel warm at night -- those seem to come pretty easy to him.
Joey Tayler is the lead writer on Rocksposure.com. Based out of Milwaukee, WI, he is always looking for a new show to see. If there is something you think he should be listening to, send him an email at JoeyT@Rocksposure.com