Artist: Good NightOwl
In Brief: A delightfully deceptive record that somehow manages to land some ingenious hooks while consistently pulling the rug out from under the listener just when they think they’ve got the rhythmic groove of a song figured out. This is where indie pop meets prog rock meets a Beach Boys-level obsession with meticulous vocal arrangements, made all the more impressive when you consider that it’s all the work of one man. Liars is one of 2020’s absolute best – I kid you not.
I get enough recommendations from friends (and occasionally random commenters on this blog) for new bands that I should check out that you can probably understand why I approach most of them with a healthy amount of skepticism, especially when they’re of the obscure, from-the-dark-recesses-of-Bandcamp variety. The flipside of this is that it’s great fun to live in a day and age where platforms like Bandcamp exist that can give much greater exposure to decidedly non-mainstream artists whose music might otherwise never get heard much beyond their own circle of friends. But sometimes there’s just so much to sift through and it’s hard to prioritize. That’s why it’s always helpful when an artist just nails it with their Bandcamp bio, to the point where it sounds like the sort of thing I’d want to listen to immediately. Case in point:
“Good NightOwl is the moniker of the composer/recording artist Daniel Lewis Cupps. Cupps is also a comedy writer, producer and actor. This project is dedicated to allowing the public to see a self-producing musical artist grow over time with barely any budget. Some songs are meant to be funny. Some are serious. If You think they are all funny…then they were all meant to be funny.”
Intriguing, right? Thanks to a friend, whose tastes overlap just enough with mine that he can reasonably predict where the Venn diagram of his quirky musical tastes and my own will merge, nudging me to give Good NightOwl a shot and offering a few tracks from the 2020 release Liars as a starting point, I clicked on over to the aforementioned Bandcamp page to quickly read up on what this artist’s whole deal was. I can’t think of a more succinct description than the one Cupps already provided, even though it honestly says nothing about what genres we’re dealing with here (which, as it turns out on this particular album, falls somewhere between indie pop, piano rock, and prog rock, if I had to take a stab). His history as a solo artist recording under this name goes all the way back to 2011, as evidenced by the long string of albums and LPs that can be found on his discography page, many of which are self-described as “concept albums”. Don’t be scared off by that – we’re not talking about the kind of record that veers off into esoteric ten-minute atmospheric guitar solos or anything. Cupps does seem to have an affinity for guitar solos, but they’re generally more up-tempo in nature, and also rather maze-like, with his vocals sometimes following their melodies in a semi-comical manner. For an album on which he played everything himself, and on which the songs frequently change shape and rhythm in rather confounding ways, I’m actually quite impressed at how well the concept is executed, how the ideas behind the songs don’t get lost in their exploratory nature, and how sturdy the lopsided structures turn out to be, with many of them returning to memorable refrains or even (gasp!) catchy choruses. Comparisons to some of my other indie-yet-sorta-progressive favorites who like to play with rhythm, like Mew, Falling Up, or Kindo, wouldn’t be entirely out of line. Liars is clearly the work of a talented auteur, but not one who is so obsessed with showing off that talent that he leaves the audience behind in the process.
The underlying concept of Liars is, unsurprisingly, a story about a pathological liar. But it’s not just any liar taking center stage here – it’s one who is so good at the art of deceit, that he manages to pass off complete nonsense that defies scientific rigor and good old common sense by explaining away other people’s memories of the facts that contradict his statements as remnants of an alternate reality. And he’s apparently got deep enough pockets to fund “research” that corroborates his nonsense. That’s some masterclass-level gaslighting, right there. What’s really devious about this record is how the music itself seems to execute the concept, frequently tricking the listener into thinking they’ve got the rhythm down before revealing it to be some sort of sneaky syncopation or polyrhythm, and yet Cupps pretty consistently weaves together engaging instrumental melodies and lusciously stacked vocal harmonies in such a disarming way that you don’t see some of the weird asides and the occasional crazy rants coming. Normally I’d expect an ambitious album with this sort of a concept to be all over the map, musically speaking, so I’m quite pleasantly surprised at how well this entire thing flows from front to back despite all the dodging and weaving the deliberate tricks being played on the listeners’ ears. I’m sure that some listeners will be absolutely infuriated by the mental effort that it takes to keep up, while others might not even be bothered by it all, and find that the whole experience goes down so smoothly, they don’t even realize they’re being swindled. Ten or so years ago, I might have been in the former camp, but nowadays I view it much like a magic show, where I know the entire point is to trick my mind into believing I’m seeing impossible events unfold before my very eyes, and the sense of delight that I get from it comes from puzzling over exactly how the deception was pulled off. I can’t think of very many records like this, where a musician is deliberately toying with me in a way that turns out to be so utterly enjoyable. It’s due to that unique experience that it only took a few listens for Liars to shoot to near the top of my list of favorite albums for 2020.
(As it turns out, this is only the first of two records that Good NightOwl put out last year, with an album called Dream later being composed and released during quarantine, which will be my next stop in the Good NightOwl archives once I’ve finished this review. If that’s even half as good as Liars, then I’ll brace myself for the inevitable archive panic that will soon set in. This dude is prolific, to say the least. But for now, I want to explore Liars from the perspective of a complete newbie, with no experience of anything else that came before or after.)
The intro track was definitely a “You had me at hello” sort of moment. I love it when my feelings of trepidation toward a new artist I know nothing about melt away pretty much instantaneously, and that’s exactly what Good NightOwl did with this track, thanks to the warm synthesizer melody and Cupps’ irresistible, multi-tracked vocal harmonies. It’s an ideal introduction for a smooth talker who wants more than anything for his words to be believed – he spends the entire two and a half minutes laying out the reasons why this is so important to him, but it’s all based in emotion and dogma rather than observable facts, as he pressures the listener to buy into a system of beliefs that he just knows must be true because of how deep down he feels all of it. This is a short song, with only two verses, two choruses, and a brief, soothing guitar solo, and it’s probably most effective when heard back-to-back with track two, which it nicely bleeds into just as the final lyric ends on an abrupt, out-of-key note, almost as if the inflection at the end of the line “Show what time has been been concealing” has turned upward to make it sound like a question.
I’m hard-pressed to think of another song that was so maddening the first time I listened to it, yet that grew on me so quickly that I soon came to recognize it as brilliant. In general, I tend to like irregular time signatures, though there are often moments when I feel like a progressive-leaning band or songwriter is doing that sort of thing just for the hell of it, and not because it really serves the flow of the lyrics or the intended mood of the song. And I never got into a lot of “math rock” bands because rhythm and tempo tend to change so frequently in that genre that the struggle to keep up tends to outweigh the satisfaction I get from listening to it. But this track has a definite reason for playing with the listener’s expectations in that sense. It’s basically the story of two old friends having an argument with each other, one of whom has bought into the cult of personality designed by our narrator in track one, and one of whom is trying desperately to appeal to reason and common sense. They keep talking over each other and missing the point, and it’s reflected in how the rhythm seems to go back and forth between a swaying 6/8 (which sounds at first like it’s going to maintain continuity with the smooth transition from the previous song) and a more rigid 4/4 – though at times I think a few bars of either one are cut off so that the transitions seem really abrupt. Yet, if you pay attention to the percussion and the piano, you can hear undercurrents of both rhythms pretty consistently throughout the track – it’s just the emphasis that shifts, and at a few points the influence from one aspect of the polyrhythm will completely drop out and force you to pay attention to the other part. Once you start to detect the method behind the madness, it’s really quite exhilarating. There’s more musical sleight-of-hand going on here than I can easily describe, and the lyrics even reference it as a metaphor for its characters’ inability to reconcile, with one character breathlessly blurting out “Maybe through the pain we will know/Where we really wanna go/Lining up at different moments/Let the polyrhythm flow” while the other responds “I’m not on beat/Please leave me be.” Throw in some off-kilter but delicious guitar solos and you’ve got yourself one hell of an engaging composition. I can’t even begin to imagine how a songwriter pieces something like this together in his mind and then executes it so flawlessly entirely on his own. Then again, trying to communicate how this would sound to a more conventional band so that everyone could play their parts properly in the studio would likely be a nightmare that would require an insane number of takes. I know we’ve still got eight tracks to go here, but at this point I’m already sold. This album is a work of friggin’ genius.
The title track is a wondrous thing to behold, building up quite beautifully from the quiet tapping and drum programming that sets up its irregular rhythm, to the searing guitar solos and delightful string interludes at its climax that more or less mirror each other’s melodies. I think the rhythm here might be shifting back and forth between 9/8 and 10/8, but it’s another one of those tricky things where the chorus seems to be a bit of a swerve coming after the verse, but it’s really a similar rhythmic cadence, just with different emphasis. It’s a perfect setting for a trip deeper into the mind of our narrator, who spends most of the song bragging about his uncanny ability to change the details of his story just when people start to pull the thread and ask troubling questions, effectively gaslighting them into thinking that what he says now has actually been the story all along, and they’re just remembering it all along because memory is not to be trusted. He’s leaning on the sheer force of his charisma to hold them under his spell, and he even seems to achieve a high from doing so: “I can say this or that or whatever gets me to my fix.” I’m pretty sure the word “fix” has a double meaning there – in one sense, he’s patching holes in his story, and in another sense, it’s like taking a hit of an addictive drug. There’s a final verse here during which the vocals seem to be deliberately blurred so that it’s difficult to make out the lyrics, as if to draw away from his confession that he’s doing this out of a desperate need to be loved. Before you can dwell too much on that, there’s another one of those delicious string interludes that goes tumbling right back into a guitar solo, as if reminding us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
It’s hard to resist a song that opens on a clever pun: “I was gonna get even with the kids who called me odd.” This is the moment where the narrator’s story starts to unravel as it comes under greater scrutiny, and he realizes he needs to up his game. So, as far as I understand it, he pays off some morally questionable quantum physicists to come up with an explanation about changing timelines, so that the inconsistencies between his past and present can be conveniently explained away. You would think this would be the point where the story would become so absurd and based in speculative science fiction that something like this could never work in real life… but I don’t know, 2020 proved to us that people are willing to buy into some real whoppers that totally fly in the face of scientists, and they can usually dig up some pseudo-scientific “study” to support the belief they’re stubbornly clinging to, so maybe this reality isn’t so far removed from our own. Musically, this seems like a much more straightforward track at first, with a horn section adding some class to its instantly likeable indie pop sound. The rhythmic shifts in the song’s bridge sections are a bit more awkward this time around, and perhaps this is just another case where I need a few more listens to get used to the abrupt nature of it, though it is kind of satisfying when the same melody from that section recurs near the end with the beat finally straightened out. Again, I’m willing to roll with it because it fits so well with the theme. The staccato strings that finish off the song are an excellent touch, too.
This song is a lot less dense in terms of lyrics. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but I feel like a lot of the sections where Cupps rattles off rapid-fire lyrics are the ones where the narrator is trying to pull a fast one on the audience, and the slower ones are the more reflective moments of truth. In this case, the lyrics are coming from the point of view of a longtime friend trying to reason with the narrator, who was willing to be his faithful follower up to a certain point, but who is now seeing the damage that’s being done and trying to persuade him to stand down. This person feels a sense of genuine relief in speaking his truth, even if he knows it’s going to fall on deaf ears. But the arrangement of the song, which at first seems to give plenty of space for his soothing chorus melody, seems increasingly determined to drown out his words with nonsense, as evidenced by the speedy keyboard (or perhaps keytar?) solo that scribbles all over its last minute or so, finally ending abruptly on an amusing low note, as if to blow a dismissive raspberry in his general direction.
I love how nonchalantly this song picks up with its easygoing atmosphere, right after the sudden sour note at the end of the last song. I love the languid feeling of the syncopated drums and the sunny tone of the guitar here – not to mention the layered backing vocals with all their “ooh”s and “aah”s designed to make you feel like you’re listening to some sort of post-modern Beach Boys. What’s funny about this is that the lyrics are pretty menacing, with our lying protagonist realizing that he’ll have to double down on his tricks in order to get around being exposed as a fraud, pay more scientists, release more viral videos, that sort of thing. The dissonance between the peaceful music and antagonistic lyrics is quite hilarious: “I know if I just get a chance I’ll take the narrative they stole/I’ll pour my heart out on a podcast to a beloved asshole.” (Apparently this universe has its own equivalent of an Alex Jones.) Now as much as I enjoy getting the inside track on how a con artist works his gimmick, I have to admit that we’re approaching cartoonish, moustache-twirling levels of evil here, as the narrator seems to delight in the deception as its own end despite the risk he runs of getting caught, whereas in the real world, as despicable as some of these fake news-spreading conspiracy theorists are, I generally believe that they believe in their own causes and don’t actually see themselves as doing something evil for the sheer thrill of it. (The media outlets that give them a platform because it’ll rack up the view counts and make them a quick buck… well, that might be another story.) Still, it’s easy to get caught up in the perverted whimsy of this song, especially when it ups the ante by taking us on another flight of fancy with a wackily-timed guitar solo, with those soothing backing vocals running underneath it as if to offer us false assurance that everything’s gonna be OK.
This is by far the weirdest, most convoluted, and most turbulent song on the record, in addition to being the longest, topping out at nearly seven minutes. It also marks a turning point in the narrative, because here our narrator starts to realize that the jig is up, he can’t keep up the balancing act any longer, and he’s done some serious damage to society that is going to take time to repair. The song unfolds in labyrinthine fashion, with a blurting tuba in its opening seconds leading into an epically confusing mish-mash of horns and electric guitar as the consequences of his treachery finally start to sink in, only to veer off into a manic, rapid-fire, profanity-laden rant in what might just be one of the catchiest moments on the album: “Look into the future and hope for the fuckin’ best things/And look into the past and see what never shoulda been there/And move on with your own fuckin’ day, when that doesn’t work/Fuck anybody that chooses to bring us all down.” To borrow an idea from the foul-mouthed and hilariously angry comedian Lewis Black, he’s pretty much using the word “fuck” as a comma here. Normally it’s not my style to throw it into a song’s lyrics so gratuitously, but what can I say, it makes the cadence of his delivery unforgettable. And it’s like he’s genuinely wrestling with the desire to feel something positive and hold out hope for the future, even while his self-centered cynicism keeps trying to intervene. The song settles into a much more melodic and hopeful section as he tries to envision what it would be like to actually start to steal the wounds he’s inflicted on everyone around him, but before the seven minutes are up, we’re treated to another round of the “rant” section, and honestly if this song didn’t take the time to run through some of its disparate fragments more than once, it might not be nearly as memorable. Cupps threw everything but the kitchen sink at this one, and against all odds, it worked.
This song is quite upbeat, though it’s full of nervous energy. If “Pressure” was more about the narrator finally caving and admitting to himself that he was wrong to deceive everyone, then this song is about the moment he chooses to turn himself in. The exuberant nature of the vocals in the opening verses seems to reflect a rediscovery of the things that matter to him in life, like the beauty of the city lights that he wants to see one last time, and the innocence and idealism that he felt as a kid before he went down the dark path of revising his own history. The song serves as his confession, presumably after he’s turned himself in to law enforcement, but the chorus (which goes through several weird, rhythmically altered reflections of itself) really gets at the number that this whole experience has done on his psyche: “All the things that we do that we never tell anyone/But we need to tell somebody just to get release/From the beast we create inside when we hide/From the deeper side telling false apprehensive tales/When we fail and we want to think we prevailed.” All this time, our villain’s real motivation was just to soothe a gaping hole in his own soul, and to silence a voice constantly telling him he was a failure. Pretty sad stuff for such a bouncy, manic, up-tempo song.
This song is… honestly, a bit of a mess. I know it’s that way because the narrator’s life is a mess. He’s trying to rehabilitate himself but, just like any addict struggling to overcome a powerful narcotic, he still lies as a knee-jerk reaction to even the most mundane questions and life events. So I guess I can understand why this song seems to be all over the map, starting off as more of a moody indie rock ballad, but spending a good chunk of its five minutes hurtling through more tempo and time signature changes than I can figure out what to do with. Instrumentally, it’s quite impressive, with thrilling drum fills, mile-a-minute guitar and keyboard solos, and so forth, but unlike the similarly messy “Pressure”, there’s not quite enough repetition of its main themes to really make any of it stick. This is still pretty impressive for the “low point” on an album, though, and I do appreciate the struggle being expressed by the narrator, as he tries his best to remove the facades he’s been hiding behind and reveal his true self to people, only to run the risk of it coming off as another ruse, a calculated move to rehabilitate his public image and dodge the worst consequences of his crimes.
Now here’s a song with a genuinely upbeat groove that, for once, isn’t trying to pull a fast one on the listener. I take that to mean that our narrator is now fully reformed – or at least, that he believes he is. The arrangement here has a real spring to its step, buoyed by some irresistible slap bass, and unlike everything else on the album, it actually sticks to a straightforward rhythm and tempo for most of its run. At this point I’m almost entirely convinced that our villain protagonist has been rehabilitated – but he seems to be having a tough time convincing the general public of that. Either that or, having been strung along by his lofty promises only for the cult they invested so much of themselves in to completely fall apart, they’re livid and can only seek revenge. No matter how much he believes he can genuinely redeem himself, the consequences loom large over the rest of his life. He cries out in desperation to be believed because he’s telling the truth for real this time, only for it to come across as the next phase of his zany scheme. There’s some excellent guitar work throughout this track, and I love how at the very end, there’s one last hint of deception as the guitar veers off into a familiar pattern, hinting at the rhythm and melody of the opening track “Conceal”. Is the whole cycle about to start over again? Or has he created such a monster that the cycle of lies now continues to exist even without his direct involvement? It’s a real “boy who cried wolf” sort of ending, and I love it for that.
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