By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
As the leader of Miniature Tigers, Charlie Brand crafts infectious pop with reckless emotional abandon at its center. Big, generous hooks convey somewhat fantastical metaphors about girls whose "Hot Venom" frightens and excites, a soul-devouring "Cannibal Queen," or a pretty "Lolita" spotted in a "gypsy crystal ball wet dream."
On his latest album, Fortress, he describes his heart as a "Mansion of Misery" and "an empty shell with only true stories to tell."
This is the secret to the Tigers' ample charms: Brand's unabashed confessions, freighted with equal parts anxious longing and aching insecurity. Their full-length 2008 debut, Tell It To the Volcano, was playful in its awkward yearning, suggesting the naif-ish allure of Jonathan Richman—an idea amplified by the music's unaffected lo-fi bounce. The follow-up is a much different album musically, adorning Brand's still painfully honest paeans in rich layers of texture that at times recall the psychedelic swells of Animal Collective.
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The change reflects a conscious decision to move beyond their critically lauded debut into uncharted waters.
"I don't even know if you could call it mature, but it was definitely intentional to do something completely different," Brand says over the phone while visiting his dad in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he used to live before decamping to Brooklyn last year. "When I wrote [Tell It To the Volcano] I was 18 and 19, and just learning how to write songs. That was mentally where I was at, but, since then, I went through a lot of stuff and, you know, kind of grew up a little bit. I listen back to the first album and I'm not a huge fan of it. I feel like it just sounds too cutesy."
Fortress is more forthright lyrically. It doesn't hide behind its shy geeky manner as often. It expresses the kind of changes Brand's made in his life the last half-dozen years, going from aimless, disaffected nobody to the frontman of a band buzzing on the strength of his will.
"When I was younger, I was really overweight, depressed and had no real direction," Brand recalls. "I knew I wanted to do something with music, but I didn't know any other musicians, and I was just here in Arizona writing songs in my bedroom. It kinda felt hopeless, like I'd never be able to achieve what I wanted to achieve. So I just took a couple years of isolating myself at my house and being super healthy and writing songs constantly. It was sort of a regimen of self-improvement. Things have changed a lot."
Not only did Brand drop more than 100 pounds, he moved out to Los Angeles for a while, where he met kindred spirit Rick Schaier. Together, they worked on Brand's 2008 twin EPs Black Magic and White Magic, the strength of which helped earn Schaier's fledgling label, Modern Art Records, a deal with Warner Bros., and subsequently launching both their careers.
Much of Fortress' subject matter delves into Brand's earlier psychology, addressing it with honesty that only time and perspective can bring. The album's first three songs—"Mansion of Misery," "Rock n' Roll Mountain Troll" and "Dark Tower"—specifically address recurrent album themes of solitude and reclusiveness.
"The intention was to write about isolation and the emotional walls people put up around themselves, restricting themselves in ways," he confides. "It was also about the safety and comforts of being by yourself, and the double-edged sword of isolation. The idea was to do an honest portrayal of myself, even if it was unflattering at times. I just wanted to go there. I wanted it to be a little bit more real or less whimsical."