There are cringeworthy moments aplenty upon a listen to One Armed Candy Bear, the debut release from Gary Louris (of Jayhawks fame) and Django Haskins (Old Ceremony) as Au Pair, but “Night Falls Early,” the fourth song in, is easily the worst.
There’s little issue to take with Louris’ and Haskins’ double duty guitar on this track or elsewhere on; both are capable players and riff off each other well, and for album like this that flits from rock, pop, and folk to the loose but progressive structures of their shared love, Big Star, that adapatibility is needed.
The problem is when they sing together. The duo’s strikingly dischordant harmonies sound as if both are vying for a lead role — which, in a sense, both perform here — and the effect is immediately disorienting. To make matters worse, “Night Falls Early” is structured around a delayed, round-type refrain, rendering the entire lyrical layer strangely out of sync.
Other puzzling inclusions are “Middle Distance,” which starts out promising enough. A driving, propulsive guitar matches the tune’s “road song” theme, but then those harmonies seep in again, making you shudder at what’s left down the highway.
“Make an Entrance” comes off like acoustic satire, its subject obvious enough—the arrival of Haskins’ first child—through corny lyrics like “Cletus Fetus/No, that is not your name/But until we know you better/It’s pretty fun to say.” The words, dripped like honey over a playful, lightly picked guitar, become a saccarine glue that sticks to everything. “Your heartbeat’s thumping/Kicking like Bruce Lee/But if you want to sleep all night/That’s all right with me,” Haskins continues.
The song is nearly three minutes long, yet it feels like nine months. With its gentle, “Blackbird”-like tempo, it’s a nice-enough smooth rock lullaby for a kids’ album; intended for adult listeners, it has the affect of a one-sided conversation with a new parent gushing about a new child, trying to be funny enough to keep your interest.
Like other songs on One Armed Candy Bear, “Make an Entrance” also has the affect of a you-should-have-been-there inside joke between Louris and Haskins, one hastily rehearsed and assembled, its meaning only fully understood by the two. Louris even backs up the idea.
“We both like to work very fast,” he told Huffington Post in an interview. “We would just sit down in his living room and let it flow. We recorded our ideas into Garage Band, just two guys strumming guitars and singing. We are on the same wavelength which always helps in co-writing. And we did it for ourselves.”
The fact is it all stinks, which is sometimes the collaborative result when two creative free spirits meet and follow their whims unfettered. Without a grounding element (like the earthy songwriting of Mark Olson, or a Stéphane Grappelli, say) to reel things in and provide balance (and in this case, the role of producer Brian Haran shoulders some responsibility), the take-away feeling after a listen to One Armed Candy Bear is simply that it’s not very good.
This is not an indictment of artists who try something new, but, like Chris Cornell’s Scream (produced by Timbaland), or Willie Nelson’s albums with Booker T. Jones, or Ryan Adams’ Rock n Roll, some new ideas require marinating time. At the very least, new projects like Au Pair should be subjected to a test panel of trusted friends, family, and those brave enough to ask: “Why are you doing that?”