Sharps & Flats

Day One find beauty in the sidewalk cracks without glossing over the British lower-middle-class milieu.

Published March 6, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Oh, love. It's rare, but it's what any music fan waits for -- that intense need to play a song just one more time, to the intense annoyance of your friends and the distraction of the rest of your music collection. Two songs like that on one album redeem any other faults; three make it indispensable.

Day One's disarming, quietly dazzling debut "Ordinary Man," released on Massive Attack's Melankolic label, is such a record. Despite a few weak tracks, it contains moments of such earthy pop exhilaration that you can forgive them anything. Like early Beck, the British duo combines folk and undulating, down-tempo hip-hop grooves -- the touch of veteran Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato Jr. is evident on every song. The band's wry humanism and rich pathos, though, are infinitely more satisfying than Mr. Hansen's smirky irony. Day One have avoided the cul-de-sac of crisscrossing references and empty, ego-fortifying role-playing to deliver hard-luck boho tales with startling wit and surprising power.

The record begins with its best song, "Waiting for a Break." Comparisons with "Loser" come immediately to mind; it has a similar loping pace and spare, jangling, homemade feel, and, like Beck's breakthrough single, it's about that once-ubiquitous media specimen, the slacker. "Loser," though, was fueled by sarcasm -- an appropriate response, surely, to the idiocy of early-'90s Gen-X articles, but not one that gets you particularly close to the people who inspired them. "Waiting for a Break," conversely, captures the slightly sad, quixotic optimism of a young man adrift in a too-vast sea of options. "Said he was an actor/Bit of a photographer/Made his living out of laughter/Which makes him a comedian," Phelim Byrne half-sings, half-raps over a mellow beat accented with warm steel guitar strains. In a culture where fame is far more important than the vehicle used to achieve it, it's easy to relate to the disordered grasping of the song's protagonist. Byrne, whose voice is endearingly craggy and nasal, sings with equal parts sympathy and satire.

He brings a similar rueful sweetness to songs about love, especially on the humbly romantic "In Your Life." Built around a crisp, cheerful guitar melody with just a hint of the bittersweet, "In Your Life" has Byrne sounding boyishly yearning, his voice almost cracking on the high notes. When he sings, "It'll take a while/But we can get this right someday," the modesty of his hopes is achingly poignant. He promises, simply, "I'm in your life," in a voice that implies he'll stay there no matter what.

One of Day One's greatest strengths is their lack of pretension, their all-forgiving sincerity. At their best, they find beauty in the sidewalk cracks without glossing over the grit of their lower-middle-class British milieu. "Love on the Dole," for example, has two people finding passion in the welfare line: "He was in section A-G, she was under H-T/Their eyes met across the queue," Byrne sings. The music is a chiming wash of vibes, flute, subtle synthesizer and shimmering guitar, and the lyrics are goosebumpy: About the lovers' derailed first date, he sings, "She answered wearing slippers/Said she couldn't find a baby sitter/He said I'm going nowhere without you." The heartbreak at the song's end is all the more sorrowful for the tenderness that precedes it.

Aside from those three exquisite tracks, "Ordinary Man" veers between good (the noir love story "Truly Madly Deeply," the jaunty rejection and revenge tale "Trying Too Hard") and mediocre ("Bedroom Dancing," which wants to be sultry but ends up flaccid). Still, at their best, they're better than almost any new band out there. Day One's combination of guitars and drum machines, their unadorned narratives and their unassuming sensitivity may be simple, but they're far from ordinary.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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