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A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES (Buy CDs by this artist)
Tsk, Tsk, Tsk (Old School) 1989
Dunces With Wolves (Old School) 1991
The Man Who Never Learns (Heartpunch) 1996
New and Interesting Developments in Uselesness (Heartpunch) 2001
The Moment You've Not Been Waiting For (Heartpunch) 2004
Excursions in Trevorland (self-released) 2006
Close Calls With Happiness (Heartpunch) 1997
The Konks EP (Heartpunch) 1999

Informed enthusiasm for the British Invasion sound (mainly the jaunty folk-rock end of the Kinks and Hollies) doesn't prevent New York City power pop auteur John Dunbar from writing and singing about the here and now. The talented multi-instrumentalist with a light, sincere tenor is ambitious enough to create music for an off-Broadway show (The Last Hand Laundry in Chinatown) and homebrew fully realized concept albums (the Rutles-like tribute entitled Konks), but — following the model of hero Ray Davies — inclined to do so by telescoping his vision down to modest and sympathetic appraisals of nobodies.

Dunbar recorded his first two albums with a quartet he named after the John Kennedy Toole novel. But despite the New Orleans milieu that should imply, Tsk Tsk Tsk owes its stylistic cues to Village Green-era Kinks. Singing in a plain but pleasant voice, Dunbar (the band's songwriter, guitarist and pianist) displays a keen traditional melodic sense (hindered a bit by imperfectly pitched background vocals) and a pointed ear for social observation that makes him something of an American Glenn Tilbrook. From a rueful critique of modern music ("The Filler Years") to well-drawn portraits of common people ("Live for Lotto," "She Hates Good Looking Guys," "Ophelia"), Dunbar and the Dunces bring a realistic modern outlook to old-fashioned musical virtues.

Made with a different band lineup (lead guitarist Joe Pampel is a valuable addition), Dunces With Wolves replaces the debut's rudimentary production with well-defined studio sound that reveals the band's resemblance to Squeeze. Other than a few clumsy constructions, Dunbar's songwriting is more assured and meaningful. The memorable "Everybody's Nice ('Til You Know Them)" and "How She Used to Feel" reveal a streak of disillusionment, while "Hating Me Again" (a monthly emotional barometer) and "Betsey Johnson Dress" apply gentle humor to good effect. His multi-tracked singing on the most alluring melodies ("I Still Have Him," "The Land of Opposites," "The Fine Art of Settling") is positively uplifting.

The Dunces fell apart, and Dunbar became a solo artist. The Man Who Never Learns, his first album in five years, is an extended character study, a demoralized chronicle of frustration and loneliness ultimately redeemed by love. The intricately overdubbed vocal arrangement of the a cappella "Insecurity Guard" and the group-sing finale, "Don't We All," are technically impressive; the phony British accent and kazoo of "Frankly, the Idea Bores Me" add a comic touch. Ultimately, though, it's the haunting piano ballad "When She Says Goodbye" that stands out.

[Ira Robbins]