Though singer-guitarist Josh Malerman’s pursuit to be a respected novelist remains in check, his brilliant wordplay sustains the High Strung’s malleable pop-rooted sprightliness. Perhaps too garrulously fey to be cool enough for punks and too weirdly discursive for mainstream acceptance, his sturdy midwest trio simply craft contagiously hook-filled tunes in a playfully eclectic manner.
Malerman’s father, a doo-wop and Buddy Holly enthusiast, introduced the pre-pubescent tyke to early rock and roll while living in affluent Detroit suburb, West Bloomfield. But his son seemed more interested in being track and field captain than wily composer. A former museum curator with a keen eye for canvas paintings, he began playing music at an overripe age, acquiring his skills attending lengthy do-it-yourself basement sessions. In accordance with his fidgety nervous energy, Malerman provided the bands’ suitable moniker, the High Strung, in 2000, a distinctive designation verified by schoolyard buddies Chad Stocker (bass), Derek Berk (drums), and ex-singer Mark Owen (who subsequently quit).
“I didn’t learn guitar ‘til I was twenty, but I had tremendous enthusiasm” Malerman affirms.
Now thirty, he has completely transformed into one of underground pop’s best compositional architects.
“Chad and Derek originally said, ‘You write, we play. Let’s get together.’ We initially did instrumentals,” he happily recollects. “They bought me a Farfisa organ and we sat in the basement and I learned it. After a year, I thought it was limiting, but I was smitten with writing songs. It was exhilarating. They were into the Ramones, Eno, and Flaming Lips. It was a latent hardcore education. Was I reliving adolescence or was I just stuck there?”
The High Strung’s developmental debut, These Are Good Times, got the ball rolling for ‘05s captivatingly upbeat and splendidly imitative Moxie Bravo (deservedly endorsed as a masterpiece by Guided By Voices indie pop lynchpin, Bob Pollard).
Malerman’s warbled bari-tenor quaver burrows through buzzy guitar-bass scruff on inviting ‘60s-styled garage rocker, “Never Saw It As Union,” variably evoking comparisons to early Beatles, a scrappier Marshall Crenshaw, and the Nightcrawlers’ foremost bubblegum smash “Little Black Egg.” Taut hip-shakin’ power popper “Anything Goes” charges out of the gate with a customarily slick three-chord angularity while organ-saturated celebration “The Luck You Got” has a spat-out lo-fi rollick primordial hipster Gary U.S. Bonds once embraced.
Pete Townshend’s Who-like guitar flange, Steve Marriott’s Small Faces-laced half-spoken raggedy flutter, and the Kinks satirical conservative bash “A Well Respected Man” all seep into paradoxical send-up, “The Gentleman.” Recalling pre-LSD-soaked psychedelia with its echoplexed six-string fury, freaked-out neurotic lyrical admissions, and mod-derived Keith Moon-y drum spasms, Moxie Bravo’s curvaceously tension-filled escapades, shrewdly updated ‘60s Brit-rock sniggles, and prettied up anthemic raves splatter engagingly clever euphonies across a rich sonic tapestry.
Soon, word spread that the High Strung would embark on a very unusual promotional expedition. Then, in ‘06, the troika audaciously booked an unconventional 60-city library jaunt documented by National Public Radio’s This American Life. Besides having a strong emotional connection to the music he has grown to love, Malerman’s totally psyched about hitting the highway so frequently.
“It’s easier for us to go out ten months a year on tour. We already went through the ‘fuck you’ stage in eighth grade (instead of working out the kinks as young adults),” Malerman says. “Our tour with Son Volt was unbelievable – 1,000 people per night in every city. We drank so much I was wore out and exhausted afterwards. It was a heightened tour, but we drove our little bus just like we did to libraries.” He adds, “That Minutemen (touring) video, We Jam Econo, blew our minds. I didn’t disagree with one goddamn thing they stood for, said, sang, and played. It was insane. That’s how I feel about music.”
Continuing to improve upon the High Strung’s winningly resourceful backdated entrenchment, ‘07s stellar Get The Guests parallels the deliciously retro zest new Park The Van label mates Capitol Years and Dr. Dog favor. The quirkier arrangements seem strangely reminiscent of art-rockers 10 CC’s cynical buffoonery and the more acoustical vignettes veer towards Guided By Voices most casual toss-offs.
Astonishingly, pixilated vestige “Maybe You’re Coming Down With It” epitomizes Spanky & Our Gang’s mystic hippie-aged Summer of Love preponderance and is sung in a range more womanly masculine than manly falsetto. Church organ drives home somber memoir, “Childhood,” as Malerman innocently sabotages Robyn Hitchcock’s seafaring lyrical phrasing and Sufjan Stevens’ lonesome rural tonality. Catchy scampered ditty, “Raise The Bar,” stingingly outlines the drunken demise of a failed goal setter. On histrionic metal-edged emblem, “I Recognize That Voice,” Malerman’s pliable vocalizing brings to mind the flamboyantly yelped hysterics of negligible ‘80s arena rock marvel Billy Squier. And stupid cupid gets impaled on the dreamily amenable “Arrow.”
Obliviously commingling Carnaby Street pop with Sgt. Pepper-era horns, metaphoric scandalmonger “What A Meddler” grovels over gabby grapevine gossip. Its dejected subject fools around, falls in love, and gets fucked over.
Malerman concedes, “At the end of every library show, we’d write a song with young kids. I strung chords together, hummed something wild, and wrote the melody and chords on the spot. Derek helped the kids get lyrics from a library book. We were ecstatic. We wrote a song by accident.”
Compellingly complex caricature “Rimbuad/ Rambo,” written in a Denny’s parking lot in Miami, turned out to be the most divisively decisive disquisition, adroitly juxtaposing the famous French poet with Sylvester Stallone’s military rogue and surreptitiously contrasting the yin and yang of the band.
Malerman avers, “I wanted to write a “Hokey Pokey”/ “Hanky Panky” song. I was onto something. The narrator wasn’t sure what he wanted to be. Like our band, it’s too soft for hard rockers and too bombastic for indie shoegazers.”
His approach to music may change, but going down unexplored avenues might be difficult for such a masterful songster.
“I go into each album thinking this is gonna be far out. This is gonna be our angry song, this, our dark song, and this, our pop song. No matter what I do, it always ends up pop. I love pop songs. I love working on them. But we have that other bone to fuss it up to a climactic whole,” he confesses.
As I allude to the Elephant 6 collective (by way of Apples In Stereo) being an effective reference, he harks, “My drummer bought me an Olivia Tremor Control record. We didn’t know bands were still making awesome psych-pop. It blew our lids.”
Proving to be an estimable component of the High Strung’s totality, famed producer Jim Diamond, whose work with esteemed Detroit combos the Sights, Dirtbombs, and Hentchmen has been highly commended, offered experienced studio supervision.
“We left Detroit, lived in New York for a few years, got The Go’s album (with Jack White in tow), and thought, ‘this sounds insane!’ Who’s Jim Diamond?,” Malerman remembers. “In college, in a much worse band, we got to play at a radio station and he recorded it. I called him, but he was booked for a year. Then I saw his name on a White Stripes album. We got in with him and even did a demo and an album we scrapped after the first one. At the time, we had another guy who sang lead and didn’t sound exciting. They were dull versions of the songs. When Mark left the band, we started from scratch and made Moxy Bravo.”
Now residing in the historic Boston-Edison district (where Motown proprietor Berry Gordy lived), Malerman is firing on all cylinders, penning a few thrillers whilst leading the life of a subterraneous pop luminary.
He concludes, “I had been trying to write books for awhile. I made it to 200 pages once, then stopped. I made 100 through a whole story I thought was good and believed it started to work. Then, a few years went by, and after Moxie, I sat down and had an epiphany. I tried to create my philosophical book – and it sucked. So I worked on a story about a sex witch in the woods. 28 days later, it was 350 pages. I talked about it non-stop, finished it, and wrote a few more. It’s the same thing as learning to play guitar and sing at the same time. All of a sudden, you could do it forever.”