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.