erasing clouds

Melancholy and Home Taping: New Releases by 99cent dream and Chelsea's Corner

reviewed by Dave heaton

melancholy: n. 1. Sadness or depression of the spirits; gloom. 2. Pensive reflection or contemplation…

When musicians are doing everything on their own, DIY-style, without any corporate accounts helping secure funding or A&R reps putting their name out, it can make musicians either hungry for success or indifferent to it. 99cent Dream and Chelsea's Corner, aka Jamey Gray of Portland Oregon and Tommy Carlsson of Sweden, live in different countries and most likely don't know each other, but they both project the latter attitude, that they're making some music and seeing what happens, without worrying about "the charts" or gaining mass appeal. Both have recently released cassettes on the fine tape label Best Kept Secret (see interview/feature here) which reveal them as talented songwriters/musicians who use their songs to travel the less-than-happy side of the soul. Both cassettes are soaked in melancholy--meaning not just sadness or gloom, but more importantly the deep contemplation that comes in those quiet moments of sadness.

99cent dream's The Hottest Demo of the Season/Greatest Hits Vol. 10 is two song collections, one on each side of a cassette tape. Side A, The Hottest Demo…, consists of beautiful, reflective ballads, each finding Gray thinking to himself about something--relationships, life, childhood, good times from the past and the regrets that come with them. Each song he combines piano and guitar with drum machines and synthesizers to gently support his voice, which is emotionally expressive to no end, while having the almost-spoken ("haters" might say "monotonous"), personal-sounding delivery which should be familiar to fans of Silver Jews and Arab Strap. The intimacy of his voice adds to the intensely personal quality of the music overall, though his sense of humor and creativity keep this from being overly depressing, as does a sense of hope and optimism throughout his lyrics. The songs convey the a sad and lonely mood but they're generally hopeful, accepting the sadness of life but also hinting at its beauty.

On the opening track, "Child of the 70's," Gray recaps the 1970s through pop culture references and then ponders his place in a decade that isn't looked upon in an exactly favorable way these days ("Someone called the 70s a low point in history/so what does that say about me?"). This is followed by a series of songs that alternate between depression, loneliness and confusion, about love and life, and humorous ponderings on the past and the present. On "Julia Stiles' Boyfriend," Gray compares his own high-school years to the fictional portrayal in "teen flicks," wondering what it'd be like to live in the Hollywood teen world of beach parties and sports cars. "All the Guns and Roses Songs We Knew" also takes a look at the past, in this case a friendship, in a way that is light-hearted on the surface but has heartfelt longing underneath. "You Don't Know That I Am Trying" and "Bury Your Face in the Ground" take a more serious, moody approach, and are the heartbreakers of the bunch, truly affecting ballads.

Side B, Greatest Hits Vol. 10 is less direct and less musically sparse. Here Gray plays slightly warped rock/pop songs, with a noisier, more clouded sound. There's a few gorgeous instrumentals (reminiscent in my mind of Hal Hartley soundtrack music), an intriguing, off-center cover of the GBV/Tobin Sprout song "Crunch Pillow," and a cloudy garage-rock rave-up ("Disco") which bears some similarity to the earliest of Pavement songs. Whatever musical style 99cent dream is working in, the emotional impact is unsurpassed--it's music that puts you in the same shoes as the songwriter, conjuring up the feeling of lonely afternoons where you have your thoughts and nothing else.

While 99cent dream Chelsea's Corner's Two Hundred Words in Snow is similar in tone, but not in musical style. The music of Tommy Carlsson, also a member of the band The Great Big No, as a bleaker outlook, both lyrically and in terms of musical tone. His heart lies firmly on the gloomy side of melancholy, though instead of sulking he uses Chelsea's Corner as a springboard for him to sing his ghosts out of his system.

From the first of the 12 tracks, a moody noise-filled song called "Tears," it's clear that Carlsson is tapping into the side of his being that feels absolutely displaced and lost in this world. With titles like "Deceit," "A Bowl With Steaming Frustration" and "When I Die," these songs deal with pain, loss, addiction, lies and despair. The music is a churning body built of guitars, keyboards and drum machines; it'll sound heavy and noisy on one track, mellow and melodic on the next, but the mood is always a bleak one. Yet Two Hundred Words… never gets stuck in a rut. Carlsson might be dealing with the more hopeless side of human emotion, but he still moves through all sorts of feelings and moods, from anger to resignation, fear to yearning. All the way through to the intense final songs, culminating in one called "When I Die," Carlsson never seems to find a place of joy or happiness--yet the playing of the songs feels like an important movement in itself, like an attempt to get it out of his system. This is cathartic release through art if I've ever heard it, an escape of pain by creating music which embodies it.

(Visit A Bouncing Space, the label run by Jamey Gray of 99cent dream at, or hear Chelsea's Corner's music at

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