BY ROBERT REA
Unlike most musicians who hone their ideas until they achieve a distinctive style, Dent May keeps things fresh by experimenting with a new approach on each album. On his first record, 2009’s The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, he cast himself as a suntan lotion and string bikini crooner, a man of leisure with a taste for sticky sweet melodies. On 2012’s Do Things, he scrapped the ukulele for synths and drum machines. Even though the dance beats boosted the energy, the final product somehow lacked the sunny sentiment that marked his debut.
In March, May recorded his third release in a Victorian home in St. Augustine, Florida, and as the title suggests, Warm Blanket soaks up the balmy weather. Strings and horns expertly layered on top of electronic bells and whistles kindle a warm and fuzzy feeling that was absent from the previous record. The lush production and whimsical tone complement May’s discerning ear for song arrangements, making Warm Blanket his most endearing effort yet.
The album pieces together a collage of sounds that reflects our contemporary moment, when any song from any genre is one quick click away. “Born Too Late” opens with a piano hook reminiscent of Randy Newman and a backing vocal fit for Blackstreet. By the time a funky synth locks in step with a roller-rink disco beat, any coherent view of pop past, present, and future becomes illusory. “Corner Piece” induces a similar sensation of sonic vertigo. An orchestra of electronic crickets chirps behind mariachi horns and a string section as May sings, “I live one life that I don’t wanna waste.” Cue this joint for twilight hour at a Sunday cookout as you reach for the last ice-cold beer in the cooler. If “Corner Piece” provides the perfect soundtrack for a belly full of barbecue and Budweiser, “It Takes A Long Time” will soften the blow on Monday morning. The melody coalesces around a breezy trumpet laced with noises from outer space. Both complex and catchy, the hair of this dog should help ease the hangover.
Lyrically, Warm Blanket traffics in standard themes like youthful longing and romantic heartbreak, but May treats the familiar with a knowing wink and smile. He inverts classic tropes like eternal youth and adolescent rebellion on “I’m Ready to Be Old.” The subject seems obvious from the title until he follows it with the line, “and wrinkly and gray.” He isn’t wishing to be old enough to buy a six-pack or get the attention of a hot girl in the senior class. Instead, he’s longing for old age and the wisdom that comes with it. “Be good to your parents / Be good to your friends,” he tells us, while sounding remarkably like Brian Wilson. It’s not hard to imagine that May will look especially prescient when he is older. He’ll still be able to perform this one without coming across as an aging pop singer trying to recapture the glory of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, “Yazoo” takes place at a party where boy meets girl, sitting alone, “wearing her favorite gown / Sipping her drink with a frown.” As he ponders this sad scene, he envisions himself as a kind of knight in shining armor, if only he had the courage to speak to her. Boilerplate ballad, right? True enough, until May breaks character by laughing at the end of the chorus’ final refrain, “Pleeease / If you need anything, let it be meeee.” Less attentive listeners might mistake his irreverent attitude toward otherwise popworn material for unabashed sentimentality. And his charisma is even more irresistible during his live set. On stage, he possesses a star quality that begs for a laser light show and fireworks display. Watching him crowd surf while singing misty-eyed love songs is well worth the price of admission.
The album concludes with “Summer is Over,” another meditation on growing old. The pedal steel sneaks a backward glance at the Hawaiian-tinged music from his ukulele days and perhaps even peers into the future. May books an occasional gig as Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City, a country act with the glitzy panache of Garth Brooks circa 1991. But with such an unpredictable artist, there’s no telling what direction he may take next. Whatever path he chooses, Warm Blanket will mark a turning point in his career when his recording vision finally matched his exceptional talent as a songwriter.
DOWNLOAD: “Corner Piece,” “I’m Ready to Be Old”