If one were to triangulate the exact point where lines drawn from Jonathan Richman, Rivers Cuomo, Robyn Hitchcock and Joe Jackson intersect, they’d find that spot occupied by a Toronto-born resident of New York City named Dan Bryk. Bryk excels in tuneful piano-based pop that combines Richman’s disarming, sometimes self-lacerating, honesty with Cuomo-styled snark and touches of Hitchcock’s surreal wordplay and sense of melody, delivering tunes which nearly always deliver solid pop hooks laced with witty, sometimes uncomfortable, insights.
Bryk’s earliest work is more guitar-based than more recent efforts. Dan Bryk, Now! begins with Bryk at his most Hitchcockian in “Mandy, Mary Beth and Jen,” a screw-you yarn to an ex-girlfriend set to a mildly psychedelic backing track. “Rehab” is a worthy entry on the list of songs dealing with less-than- successful attempts at the subject, while “The Silence That Passes for Peace” is a jangly, psychedelic rave-up not far from the land of Robyn.
Dan Bryk, Asshole puts Bryk well on the way to establishing his awkward schlub persona. “She Doesn’t Mean a Thing to Me Tonight” vainly attempts to convince a new love object, who he has yet to date, that his old girlfriend is well in the past. His nerd credentials are further cemented in an ode to a video game designer (“In Praise of Mark Turnell”), which contains the needless confession “I didn’t have many friends.” Over a funereal trumpet on the very angry “The Trouble With Nice Guys,” Bryk ponders all the different ways he disappointed an ex, including a namecheck for the Beautiful South. But while Bryk seems most comfortable directing his lacerating wit inwards, he’s not afraid to aim a few shots in other directions. It’s a sly bit of business to begin “Singer Slash Songwriter” with a horribly out-of-tune harmonica solo. The music on Dan Bryk, Asshole is much sparser than Dan Bryk, Now! as Bryk moves closer to piano troubadour mode.
Bryk returns to guitar rock on the brief Dan Bryk Rocks Nobody. Making a lie of the title, Bryk rocks like nobody’s business on three rave-ups, especially the very loud title track, where Bryk vows to win a Juno award and sundry other pipe dreams.
Bryk was poised to reach a wider audience after signing with Scratchie for 2001’s Lovers Leap but the label lost its distribution deal with Mercury and the album barely came out. That’s a shame, because Lovers Leap is a top-notch collection of tuneful, sometimes discomforting pop music. New and improved renditions of “In Praise of Mark Turnell” and “She Doesn’t Mean a Thing to Me Tonight” join 11 other winning pop tunes. “Fingers” is a squirm- inducing portrait of a child molester; “Bbw,” a catchy ode to a chunky girl who’ll do anything he wants, including telling off his mother, is nearly as uncomfortable. The upbeat songs like “I Love You Goodbye,” “Bound to Be Happy” and “…And Now Our Love Is Dead” show Bryk to be a master of pop hooks on a par with Difford and Tilbrook or Ben Folds.
After his big break fizzled, Bryk retreated for a few years before resurfacing with the brief but great two-song of “We Don’t Care” in 2006. He followed that a few months later with a collection of seasonal originals. Christmas Record mixes upbeat pop tunes and mournful piano balladry. True to form, Bryk finds little to be joyful about in the holiday season. “Those cozy Christmas evenings are gone forever” he laments, noting that loneliness and melancholy are just as present during the Christmas season as joy and good cheer.
Bryk previewed the Pop Psychology album with the Discount Store EP. The title track is the most toe-tapping ode to financial hard times and economic inequality one is likely to ever hear, and — considering that it came out a year before the financial collapse of 2008 — prescient. On the very sweet “Normal” Bryk tries to sell a potential love interest on the idea that a relationship with him would not be weird, while “Put That Boy Away” contains the valuable insight “it takes a village to raise an idiot.”
Pop Psychology begins with “Treat of the Week,” a bitter examination of the pop music machine and the politics involved in who makes it big and who doesn’t. The entire album is a stock-taking of Bryk’s place in the music world. “The Next Best Thing,” “My Own Worst Enemy” and “My Alleged Career” critique a business which doesn’t value talent as much as marketing; Bryk curses himself for believing it might be otherwise. The rest of the album compares personal relationships to the music business, observing that those most deserving of good things are likely to be the least rewarded. The final track sums it all up with a resigned “Whatever.” Despite the futility, Bryk loads Pop Psychology with sweet hooks and arrangements. He may never be famous, but Bryk is too talented and too conscientious a craftsman to release an album that’s not bursting at the seams with quality pop music.
In his spare time, Bryk is one of the operators of the Urban Myth label and plays keyboards in the excellent baroque pop band Down by Avalon.