I can't claim to begin to understand Milo Pullman's songs. Chickens, geese and roosters; the Crimean war; lords and knights; six-minute epics and 90-second blasts of confusion. Pullman's lyrics bounce between moments of inspiration, moments of madness and moments of unbelievable shlock, sometimes in the same song -- or the same phrase. It's as though Pullman speaks an entirely different language from the rest of us: one born of Dylan and Beckett, yet raised by neither.
Pullman, a 20-year-old, Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter, has collected some of Pittsburgh's finest musicians into his bedroom studio to create The Crimean War, including guitarist D.C. Fitzgerald (playing bass and banjo), fiddle and mandolin player Bob Banerjee and pedal-steel magnate Pete Freeman. And Pullman himself has a supple touch on finger-style folk and blues guitar, as well as standard pick-and-strum folky accompaniment to his dedicatedly Dylan-worshipping singing style.
But is Pullman a genius of songwriting art brut? Or simply enamored of his idols, yet unable to come up with the goods? When I first listened to The Crimean War, I thought it was in part a sly, sophisticated satire on the kind of pretentious 20-year-old who sits in his basement listening to way too much early Dylan. After awhile, it occurred to me that Milo Pullman might actually be a pretentious 20-year-old who sits in his basement listening to way too much early Dylan.
Check out the title track's enigmatic-bordering-on-psychedelic verse and chorus: "I woke up one morning / just about time for lunch / who should I see / but my friend Captain Crunch / I said 'Captain, won't you take me / for a long ocean ride' / he said 'jump in your cereal box / and wait for high tide' / The Crimean war / is filled with whores / there's a jackal on every shore / I don't care / if I'm slave or I'm free / for the ocean is as wet as the sea." A statement on the indifference of reality to rhetoric's foul spin (see "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities")? Or real voices-in-the-head stuff?
Of course, it's not all like that: Some tracks, like "What To Do (About You)" are fairly straightforward, and blessed with stylish affectations from the sidemen. Others, like "Pile Driver Blues," are downright brilliant -- a rhythmically impressionistic blues that's somehow actually less subtle than raunchy blues classics like "Banana in Your Fruit Basket." Even the straighter Dylanesque stuff, like "Goodnight Catalina," with its epic trumpet-like fiddle, is damn fine Hammond-and-strum arena-songwriter material.
But songs like "You Can't Eat New York (Even If You Try)," the chicken-referencing "Jumpies Blues," and "The Crimean War" are weird enough to beg questions: how much Xiu Xiu is in that man's record collection, along with Highway 61 Revisited? Where does quirky end and fucked-up begin?