We Can’t Enjoy Ourselves is one the most enigmatic bands I’ve encountered recently. They may hail from Brooklyn like damn-near everybody else these days, and their songs, though incredibly well crafted, are hardly genre-bending. But when I came across their press kit in the Ampeater submissions box, I was immediately struck by their response to the question, “describe your music….” While most bands take this prompt as an opportunity to explain just why exactly they’re so fucking awesome, We Can’t Enjoy Ourselves launches into a scathing and borderline-nonsensical self-critique. “One should be careful not to expect much from (our music)” explains vocalist/guitarist Giovanni Saldarriaga. It’s “delightfully unimportant, in poor taste, demonstrably demonic, satanically pointless and thus,” he concludes, “absolutely fatal to art history majors, compost or compote enthusiasts, and class-conscious bores.” I suppose one should expect a reasonable degree of self-deprecation from a band named We Can’t Enjoy Ourselves, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more to what Saldarriaga was saying than the mere sum of the words coming out of his mouth. Was it modesty? Irony? A desperate plea for attention? Crossing off theory after theory, I finally arrived at one that seemed a bit closer to the truth-poetry. Perhaps Saldarriaga will cringe at this conclusion. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he’ll retort, “it’s satanically pointless!” But there’s a world of difference between “satanically pointless” and “pointless” and my verdict holds. Some might call this distinction merely rhetorical but the implications are actually quite vast. I wouldn’t waste my time with pointless music but satanically pointless music is another matter altogether.
I agree wholeheartedly with Saldarriaga that We Can’t Enjoy Ourselves is satanically pointless. And what’s so captivating about the satanically pointless? How is it poetic? I’m not drawing comparison to the poetry of Neruda or Rilke or Pushkin or anybody so serious. We Can’t Enjoy Ourselves approach their craft more like Velimir Khlebnikov, Lewis Carrol, or even Dr. Seuss. They’re of a breed of artist that, while lambasting the medium in which they work, never cease for a moment to delight the senses. “(Our music is) inspired by Buddy Holly’s music, the Brandenburg Concertos and cat food commercials from the nineteen nineties,” Saldarriaga continues. “Sometimes it’ll send you into orbit, sometimes Miami Beach circa 1948, a very tame year for bikinis and bathing trunks.” Or, to put it a different way, “if you keep asking us these ridiculous questions, we’re going to keep giving you ridiculous answers.”
In addition to Saldarriga, the trio features Caley Monahon-Ward on drums and Michael Leviton on bass-at least that’s the standard lineup, but the band of multi-instrumentalists mixes it up whenever appropriate with the addition of keyboards, harmonicas, whatever… Front-man Saldarriaga has spent the last several years playing clarinet and guitar in hot-jazz ensembles. Monahon-Ward drums for a number of New York area bands including Extra Life. Leviton is an established singer and songwriter who, incidentally, toured with They Might Be Giants in 2006. To paraphrase, each member of the trio is a veteran performer. Perhaps that’s why they approach We Can’t Enjoy Ourselves as a side project, a diversion from more serious pursuits (“we got together over the winter to record… only after realizing we all have mothers named Olga,” explains Saldarriaga), even though the music is sufficiently potent to warrant more attention.
A-side “Charming Man” springs into action with a sparse but energetic beat in which the power of the floor tom is tempered by the playfulness of a tambourine. Enter jangly guitar and bass followed quickly by vocals. Saldarriaga’s accent and hyper-melodic vocal hooks bring to mind Belle & Sebastian and yes, if you insist, cat food commercials, but the final product is somewhat more manly than the former and considerably less obnoxious than the latter. The song escalates at a perfect pace. Guitar and drums launch it into a double-time feel at the first chorus and the delightfully indulgent harmonies which kick in at the onset of the second verse up the ante once more. Falsetto counterpoint throughout the third verse, a maneuver that strongly evokes the Beach Boys, and a mildly spastic guitar riff in the final chorus carry the song to a euphoric end.
Clocking in at over five minutes long, B-side “Liza (They Don’t Call This Dancing)” lacks the radio-friendly brevity of “Charming Man” but the payoff is huge when you arrive at the dance-off outro about which Saldarriaga remarks, “I thought really sold it as a plausible Motown number.” I’m not sure if I’d call it Motown but an irresistible shuffle pulse and buoyant vocals certainly make for an explosive finale. Not that the beginning of the song is lacking in hooks; employing many of their usual tricks (lush harmonies, copious tambourine, and a vocal line that dives from high to low but remains sufficiently simple that somebody listening for the first time could probably sing along), We Can’t Enjoy Ourselves offer the listener another pop masterpiece, one that’s less conventional than “Charming Man” but equally addictive
We Can’t Enjoy Ourselves’ debut mini-album One Belongs Here More Than You was the the serendipitous fruit of a blizzard last February. “For two days,” recalls Saldarriaga, “we laid up in the dilapidated sacristy of St. Cecilia’s convent in Greenpoint where the pew fell apart on touch and where the janitor reported to us that he played the original Toxic Avenger from the eponymous film series.” With the exception of a few vocal overdubs, all seven tracks were recorded live, an impressive feat for a band that’s yet to play a gig. In between takes, Monahon-Ward filled the role of sound engineer and producer while Leviton corrected papers on photosynthesis and Saldarriaga studied Russian. A productive way to spend two days snowed in, no? It’s one of the best self-production jobs I’ve heard. But as I keep reiterating, these guys know exactly what they’re doing at every turn along the way. And maybe that’s why they can’t take themselves seriously. They’ve seen every trick in the pop-music book and consequently recognize them for what they are-tricks. “The coronary thrombosis behind Liza,” analyzes Saldarriaga “is a little more far out than the insouciant pleading behind Charming Man.” I couldn’t have put it better. Knowing the formula to pump out hit after hit is a valuable skill indeed and one that few bands have acquired… but I suppose it could take a little bit of the fun out of the songwriting process. Oh well. If they can’t enjoy themselves, at least others will.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem113/01 Charming Man.mp3