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An Actual Tiger finds his own voice

“Funeral Music” is harm pop that delivers on that promise. Seely’s mélange of tasty guitar picking and his soothing, unaffected singing, a rarity in an indie world that’s often cluttered with pretension, play well over the dark lyrical content.
/ Source: contributor

Thumb through the lyric book of Tim Seely’s debut solo CD, “Funeral Music,” and you can’t help but notice his poetry accompanied by drawings of cute, fuzzy critters caught in the cruel cycle of nature.

A bird lays suspended, upside-down. Rabbits struggle vainly to escape a snake’s strike. A dying mouse writhes. A hawk snares a cat. A dog sticks to barbed wire. Life hurts, but it moves on.

Hovering over this decay is Seely, presumably with a detached cackle at the glory of it all. He writes at the end of the liner notes, “No animals were harmed in the making of this album.”

That’s the essence of “Funeral Music,” an intelligent, fresh and melodic new collection of work from the 28-year-old former frontman of Seattle’s 2000-2002 smart-pop upstarts, the Actual Tigers.

Three years after his seminal group’s dissolution in the wake of typical major-label under-promotion, internal strife and road weariness, Seely took his burgeoning confidence in songwriting and musical adventure and turned inward.

Armed with a handful of homemade demos, Seely lit out for Oxford, Miss., and hunkered down with producer Dennis Herring (Elvis Costello, Modest Mouse) and multi-instrumentalist Clay Jones before returning to his Ballard neighborhood bedroom to finish four tracks and releasing it on his own label, Slow Love Records.

The result is a stunning 11-song tapestry detailing “a sometime obsession with our imminent mortality and the tendency to trivialize this fact to get on with living,” as Seely puts it.

The mood is set from the dramatic opening track, “6 Foot Crest,” which is ushered in by machine sounds and a jangly, offbeat, guitar-picked riff enhanced by cell phone ringtones and leads to a crescendo replete with lush strings.

Seely’s unabashed lyrical self-assuredness shines right away in the mysterious couplet that kicks off the song:  “We built a house of shattered glass, the grommets growled as she rose / Prepared my shelf for mantle health, and wasted hours in her fold.”

Then, after an ethereal break, Seely closes the song by singing slower for dramatic effect over synthesized sighs and changes key slightly for an exclamation point: “The preacher said I’ll grow to rest miles in the sky / A six-foot crest may be my best, despite aiming high.”

“This record is about me trying to find my own voice, whereas on the Actual Tigers record, I think I was trying to sound like some combination of my heroes at the time,” Seely says.

In other words, “Gravelled and Green,” the Actual Tigers’ catchy, world-rhythm-tinged and all-over-the-map “debut/swan song,” as Seely calls it, could sometimes be construed as harmless pop but always held the potential for much more.

“Funeral Music” is harmful pop that delivers on that promise. Seely’s mélange of tasty guitar picking and his soothing, unaffected singing, a rarity in an indie world that’s often cluttered with pretension, play well over the dark lyrical content.

As Seely says, “Almost all of the songs have common themes somehow relating to death, whether it be fear of death, not accomplishing enough during the course of one's life, the idea of immortality and questioning/challenging the idea of the afterlife.”

But the songs also somehow share life-affirming melodies that imply happiness and the ability to see humor in some of the bleaker aspects of a mortal existence.

“On Film I Play Myself,” which rings with a heavy, reverbed electric guitar riff over an ass-kicking looped backbeat, closes with the line, “In the wet cement I’m bathing / I feel Roman.”

The album’s title track pogo-sticks along with infectious, anthemic “woo-hoo-hoo-ing” and Seely croons, “It’s that look in your eyes, picturing me dead when I am sleeping.”

And in “Telephone,” Seely presumably gets back at an old flame, spouting off a cool, condescending, “And you’re not much brighter than you was back then.”

This twisted form of erudite black comedy is about as “emo” as Seely will ever get, and it’s something he’s proud of, especially when he turns on the radio and cringes from hearing guys his age getting rich from selling cheap cheese and whine.

“I have a hard time buying what the dude is saying if it is too sickly sweet or diary-page emotional,” Seely says. “I want to smash it.”

One thing Seely manages to smash with “Funeral Music” is instrumental convention — among countless other “found sounds,” he used Tibetan prayer bells, the grinding of a computer hard drive, an answering machine, a Talking Postcard and a tiny bell on the record.

Seely is going places, with an EP planned for the spring and several labels already interested. But with his youthful rock-star dreams dashed, he now says he knows what the good fight is all about.

“I don't necessarily want to have to wear those leather pants, so to speak, if I'm still at it when I'm 50,” Seely says.

“Unless, of course, they're really awesome and comfortable leather pants.”

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