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CD review: Ezra Furman & the Harpoons, 'Mysterious Power'

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(Red Parlor) 4 stars

ezramysterious.jpgEzra Furman & the Harpoons have been knocking around this area for years, Furman being the young but oft-cited "unappreciated genius." The first couple of records, "Banging Down the Doors" (2007) and "Inside the Human Body" (2008), bristled with energy and potential. They drew a lot of Violent Femmes, Neil Young and Bob Dylan comparisons and were clear proof of a burgeoning, visceral talent, even if they weren't convincing of the "genius" tag quite yet. With the third outing the comparisons will keep coming (he's a snotty Roky Erickson, an amphetamine-jacked Chris Kowanko, a not-so-childlike Daniel Johnston), but the argument that Furman is a brilliant individual with his own searing voice will be much easier to make. "Mysterious Power" is revelatory -- a joyous racket, a splintered confessional, an anxious thrill ride with the top down next to a fidgety poet who's crazy in love.

"Mysterious Power" opens simply, with Furman strumming his acoustic guitar and singing a mournful love letter to "Wild Rosemarie," something he has to get off his chest before the rest of this record can get going. He baptizes his regrets, using water metaphors to describe how the things he longed for turned against him -- "How it had drowned us after all / how we used to thirst for it to burst forth from the sky and start to fall" -- and when the second song rumbles to life, Furman has been reborn. He spits determined, one-note verses as the piston-packing Harpoons rev their indie-roots rock engine into second, then third gear. "I Killed Myself but I Didn't Die" is an explanation of the miracle that must have followed his post-Rosemarie depression, and a new declaration: "I hate pop music and I hate 'The Duke of Earl'!"

After that, more anti-pop, anti-"Duke" pokes in the eye, each one with a power-pop hook embedded within a thoroughly scrambled punk, rockabilly or "Zuma" song. "I am nothing but a boy in my room," Furman laments in the title track, thinking aloud over a pokey, Muppet-like piano part. But in "Hard Time in a Terrible Land" he's not so furtive, spewing biblical wisdom, careening through the crack band's bluesy boogaloo and preaching, "You've got rats in the water and bugs in the wood / Listen up, son, you better do what you should!"

The album staggers between angular quips and plaintive yearning, between the Modern Lovers and "Modern Love." The song "Bloodsucking Whore" actually is a breathless plea to be said whore; he surrenders his dignity long before the end to allow Andrew Langer's tortured guitar to finish begging on his behalf. Most songs are intensely personal dumping grounds for Furman's candor about his maladjustment, including his failure to understand love, his carefully articulated passion to keep trying and the frustrated rage that inevitably ensues. "I can't tell what I am gonna do next," he says in "Teenage Wasteland" (not a Who cover). "I'm gonna self-destruct / I don't see a problem with it."

"Mysterious Power" turns into a road album midway through, around "Don't Turn Your Back on Love," Furman's walk with Woody Guthrie down a dusty road contemplating the author of the song "America the Beautiful." His lyrical advice works both ways: don't give up on love, but don't ignore its dangers, either. "You idiot, you fool, don't you do it," Furman honks in his gritty, high-sinus voice. He keeps traveling through "Portrait of Maude," rolling out to California chasing "a cowboy-movie kind of love," and then brings it all home for "Wild Feeling," a quintessential album closer slowly considering all that's just happened and how it's all going to end -- returning to his water motif: "The streams that take us to the sea / will overflow and that will be / the end, the end, the end" -- as he almost absent-mindedly strums his guitar. It is a righteous conclusion, and it deserves an amen.

In concert: Ezra Furman & the Harpoons perform April 23 at Subterranean.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on April 8, 2011 5:00 AM.

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