Bitter pills

Listening to a musician talk about his or her craft is often as enticing a prospect as watching sausage being made. That is, you don't want to know how many fingernails and lower intestines and skull fragments get ground into the mixture; you only want to taste the final result after it's been packaged and cooked and served on a clean platter. You know the casing is filled with blood and guts, yet you don't even think about it when you put the fork into your mouth and start chewing. You just shouldn't.

Same goes for rock and roll and the people who make it. You shouldn't have to listen to a musician describe his pain to be able to hear it in his music. You shouldn't have to have a musician draw you a map to direct you through an album. All the exegesis in the world shouldn't affect how you listen to music--how you feel it, rather--and if it does, then, baby, you ain't got no soul.

So it's with diligence and patience that I listen as Tablet vocalist-songwriter Steven Holt and guitarist-songwriter Paul Williams speak about their craft over lunch at a Deep Ellum Mexican restaurant. Their debut album, Pinned, is being released in Texas on Kudzu/Mercury Records on the day of this interview (the record hits stores nationally April 30), and they are hoping to begin a future as Dallas musicians with a national record in stores.

But even more than that, Holt and Williams are eager to set the record straight--the record being Pinned and those things written about it in these pages; something about how the songs are shallow, but how the wading pool can provide relief on a hot day.

It has long been my impression that Tablet's a decent enough band--good pop songwriters who craft their tunes with enough care to make them substantive and enough passion to make them stick when thrown against the wall. The lyrics themselves seem, on the surface, sort of empty and vague, though as a general rule, even the most profound lyrics make for the worst poetry when you can't hear the melodies. Like Howard Stern says: What do you call a topless dancer you can't see? A girl with a really bad personality.

"Cancelled"--currently all the rage on Q102 (KTXQ-FM), where the single is in regular rotation now--is the epitome of a Tablet song: It takes you on a pleasant ride but never drops you off anywhere. "I've been cancelled, floating free," Holt sings. "I've been cancelled, look at me." Behind him, the band pulses out an incessant, giddy melody that you can't leave behind even when you're on the run. The idea is you have to fill in the blanks, but that was the appeal of a Mad-Lib, too.

Tablet has been around for three years now, and in that time has actually come a long way: Where the demo tape gave off the bright glow of promise, the follow-up four-song EP was more like a threat--cream-cheese power chords wrapped in new-wave song structures. (To their credit, Holt and Williams even acknowledge the EP's faults, though they blame most of them to one of their departed bass players.) Even worse, during the early live shows, the band shared the stage with a guy who painted "abstract" art as the set unfolded, leaving one to wonder who got the bigger take of the door receipts. Pinned is a giant leap forward by comparison, though so is a baby step.

Holt and Williams now insist they don't give a damn what anyone thinks of their music, but that's what all musicians say as they curse their critics. They assert they just want the audience to understand the songs, not necessarily like them. Yeah, they shrug, the record may well seem light and bright on the surface--it is, after all, still a pop record above all else--but dig just below that surface, and you'll find a whole world of dark.

"Most of the time the lyrics are misconstrued," Holt says. "We don't give a fuck what people think. The lyrics are very simple, but the reason for that is so that they can basically be metaphorical. We want to get across to a wide range of people, but unless you look deeply, you're not gonna understand what I was saying in the song. If you just listen to the surface lyrics, and the melody seems harmless or simple, then you might have the opinion, 'This is very simple. This guy is not very deep, not very intelligent,' and that's fine.

"But other people will look at it deeper. They'll read the lyrics. I describe a lot of things that are pretty dark and compare them to things like sunshine. Like, for instance, I compare the feeling of when a drug hits you to the feeling of warm sunshine hitting your skin, but that doesn't mean I'm writing a song about sunshine. You can gather a little from the songs or a lot. I don't expect people to know or want them to know what I'm singing, because that way everybody's going to have a different opinion about it. And, on top of that, you can intrude into people's lives who otherwise wouldn't give you a second look, and that's the idea. That's how music changes people, and that's how you affect the wide audience."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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