Two weeks after my edited review of Autobodies’ Rearranger first surfaced on MonkeyBiz.ca, this assessment of Dirty Penny’s Sage Against The Machine made its debut. (The Sage in this case being Mahatma Gandhi whose face is on the cover, a still of which was included in the original posting.) This was the second of four critiques that would finally appear on the site after months of uncertainty, as documented in that first link. (Two more reviews of The Unborn and Morrissey’s Years Of Refusal would follow two months later, as would a fifth, Jennifer’s Body.) By the way, this Dirty Penny is not to be confused with this Dirty Penny.
Posted on April 11, 2010, it is slightly shorter than the version you’re about to read. I was perfectly happy with what I submitted, so it was a little disappointing to see lines get clipped or chopped off completely from the finished version. (A minor complaint, it should be noted.) Some have been restored for this reposting. I hope you enjoy it.
Dirty Penny’s Sage Against the Machine
Posted on April 11 2010 under Arts & Entertainment
By Dennis Earl
“It’s a big, long part where I don’t do anything,” says the deep-voiced Jason Cavener during a rare moment of lucidity.
It’s an ad-lib heard two minutes and one second into a song called Just One Finger, track nine from Sage Against The Machine, the second album from his indie band, Dirty Penny.
Based in Toronto, this gruesome fivesome specialize in rocking out to the dumbest lyrics you’ll ever hear. After his unexpected pronouncement, his bandmates continue on with a groove reminiscent of The Tragically Hip’s So Hard Done By. It’s 40 seconds of bliss.
Then, Cavener starts singing again. Oh dear.
It’s a shame because almost all the music on this album is highly listenable. The unfortunately titled Dick Opportunity has a Franz Ferdinand vibe to it. Hot Cocoa has a solid arrangement that sounds like The Rolling Stones in their later years. If I Wuz A Cat imagines The Hip channelling Sonic Youth. Declined wouldn’t be out of place in a They Might Be Giants setlist.
If only the singing and the lyrics were equally as good.
Cavener’s vocal approach is mostly maddening and rarely tuneful. He offers his worst performance on the album’s opener, Magic Tricks. In a croaky, almost self-pitying tone, he describes an afterlife involving wizardry, friends with flowers growing out of their noggins and “swimming pools of lovers that you had”.
Obviously attempting to be John Lennon at his most surrealistic, the result is more baffling and moronic than transcendent. By the end, we’re led to believe that these were just scenes from an unnamed movie. Let’s hope it never gets made.
Atahualpa, the tenth song, makes even less sense. Plus, the vocals are just terrible. Not even the mostly effective arrangement (which, sadly, grows weary itself after a while) can save this four-minute nonsense.
Cavener never sounds original when he sings. Throughout the album, he alternates from sounding like dreadful imitations of Robert Smith of The Cure and Roland Orzabal of Tears For Fears to an unsexy Mick Jagger, a less confident Dave Grohl in a lower, quieter register and even that guy from Real Life who sang Send Me An Angel in the ’80s.
Time and time again, he lets down his talented bandmates with lacklustre results.
Increasingly desperate for your attention, Dirty Penny aims to shock. Lady Nurse None, which begins and ends with Under Pressure-style finger snaps, spins a delightful tale about overworked hospital employees who are eager to shag poodles and bugs instead of human beings. Hot Cocoa is about calling your mom while in the middle of preparing for self-gratification. The meandering Declined ends with a disturbing image involving Catholic priests.
Since they have nothing terribly meaningful, coherent or even funny to say, Dirty Penny frequently go the disgusting route. How very sad. The only bright spot is a rather pretty acoustic reworking of Pretty Boy Floyd, a 70-year-old Woody Guthrie song. You can tell it’s a cover because the lyrics are good and Cavener dials down his creaky vocals considerably. A good decision on his part.
Could this band succeed with a different singer and a more serious lyrical approach? Considering the plethora of bands fighting for attention these days, it’s very hard to say for sure.
What is certain is that Sage Against The Machine (love that title) is easily one of the worst albums I’ve ever heard, despite its entertaining musical arrangements – and putting the late Mahatma Gandhi on the cover doesn’t change that fact.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, January 4, 2014