Informed enthusiasm for the British Invasion sound (mainly the jaunty folk-rock end of the Kinks and Hollies) doesn’t prevent prolific 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 and a powerful literary bent is ambitious enough to create music for an off-Broadway show (The Last Hand Laundry in Chinatown) and a classic cult film (Minnie and Moskowitz) as well as fully realized homebrewed concept albums (the Rutles-like tribute entitled Konks), but — following the model of hero Ray Davies — he does so by telescoping his vision down to modest and sympathetic appraisals of sad sacks, brokenhearts and regular folks.
Dunbar recorded his first two albums with a quartet he named after John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Despite the New Orleans milieu inhabited by the acclaimed novel inhabits, 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 a 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 an abiding streak of disillusionment, while “Hating Me Again” (a monthly emotional barometer) and the delightful “Betsey Johnson Dress” apply gentle humor to good effect. Dunbar’s 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.
With veteran bassist Sal Maida (Milk ‘n’ Cookies, Sparks, Roxy Music) and drummer Sal Nunziato (joined for the third album by old pal Pampel), Dunbar returned to the band format with the John Sally Ride. For its first album, A New Set of Downs, the instrumentally accomplished trio fleshed out selections from Dunbar’s one-man-band solo repertoire — “I Didn’t Know I Was Saying Goodbye” and “She Walks Her Dog in Pajamas” (From Expectation to Surrender), “One of These Days You’ll Have One of Those Days” and “Your Closest Friends” (Comeuppance, See Me Sometime) — to excellent effect, yielding the strongest album of his career.