Some musicians master tone and not much else. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy collaborator Emmett Kelly might be adept at creating porous, translucent space with a set of steel strings, but he doesn’t seem to know how to fill it. Tiny Rebels, the latest EP from his four-piece The Cairo Gang, floats a scrappy psychedelia built with tambourines and 12-string guitar. It’s more of a song-based effort than some of the Gang’s previous work, but it doesn’t have the structural bones or the lyrical meat to stand up on its own.
Part of the joy of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy at his best is the mischief in his words and delivery. Few artists can pull off the balance between flat violence and Shakespearean sex jokes that Will Oldham navigates with a twinkle in his eye. But Kelly lacks that nuance as a lyricist, pushing alternately blunt and obtuse lines with the same affected wail. “I’ve been contemplating suicide,” he confesses in the opening moments of another cover of Rowland S. Howard’s “Shivers”. He goes on to explain: “My baby’s so vain/ She is almost a mirror.” If she’s the mirror, isn’t he the one gazing at himself? Whose vanity is leading him to self-destruction, again?
The music doesn’t save the content. A round bass wobbles between two chords as Kelly’s loose riffs drip, but the escalation necessary to pull off a song this simple never kicks in. Other tracks flirt with baroque pop harmonies and scuttling electric distortion, two poles of indie rock buzz sound that don’t react in any useful way when thrown together into the same song. Of the EP’s six songs, the title track holds the most poise as it coasts down a single, insistent note. “Together we might be/ Something important too,” speculates Kelly. But wanting to be important doesn’t make you important any more than stitching together the shells of a good song makes a good song.
Essential Tracks: “Tiny Rebels”
Editor’s Notes: Amended to address the cover.