Only the lonely

Love songs are, of course, the heart--or, more accurately, the broken heart--of popular music. Whether they are autobiographical stories or thinly veiled tales or imagined fantasies and failures, songs about love (or the promise of love, or the departure of love) constitute the bulk of the popular song catalog, followed closely only by songs about cars (themselves only metaphors for women) and guitars (metaphors for sex) and being in a band (a metaphor for group sex). They exist in such plentiful supply because it's the one universal experience in this world--the quest for a warm body, for a night or for a lifetime.

That dog.'s Anna Waronker writes such songs, and she does so with the unflinching and almost unnerving honesty of someone unlocking her diaries and inviting anyone to read them. She likes to say that most of the songs she writes are self-explanatory--not just their general subject matter, but down to the detailed incidents she recounts (like the time she put on lip gloss in front of a boy and waited for him to kiss her, but he never did).

And so each time a song title is mentioned off that dog.'s second album--titled Totally Crushed Out, which one band member describes as a "teenage romance novel" set to music--Anna Waronker shrugs and groans a tiny "Oh, God." As the woman who writes and, for the most part, sings the songs, Waronker is profoundly embarrassed by the sudden realization that the stories she has written about old boyfriends and unrealized lovers--all almost always mentioned by name--will be heard by other people, especially those about whom they were written.

"In 'He's Kissing Christian,' I'm watching a love triangle between three boys I know, and I'm going out with one of them and having a crush on another one," she says, explaining one of the album's songs. "But there's three boys--one I'm just friends with, one I'm going out with, and one I have a crush on. And they're all fooling around with each other." Waronker pauses, then sighs again. "Oh, God."

The music on that dog.'s self-titled debut, released last year, was small and enormous, haunting and thrilling, gorgeous and angry. It was a study in contrasts--violins brushing against a punk-rock guitar, lush three-part harmonies backed by a breakneck rhythm section, beautifully-sad songs about Richard Simmons and vacuuming hair-cutting machines--with each song strung together until it sounded less like a rock album and more like a little low-fi opera.

But it was very much the sound of a young band searching for its identity, three women (Waronker and sisters Petra and Rachel Haden) and a guy (Tony Maxwell) experimenting with beauty and noise. Like the young girl on the album's cover--this child spreading her arms, her face twisted in anguish or desperation, her mouth wide open as though it were screaming or even howling--that dog. was looking for its own voice. And so every revelation had a punch line, every sad song became funny, every serious word was sung through a cute smile.

Which is what makes Totally Crushed Out such a striking sophomore effort, if only because it is a wonderful thing to watch as a band grows up in public--to hear the voice crack, as it were. The songs on Totally Crushed Out are now so grown-up and weary and wise; they capture the heartache that accompanies a breakup no matter which side you're on, just as they recount how awful and exhilarating it can be to have a crush on someone who doesn't know you're alive. And finally, they are songs that capture why it sometimes feels so good to feel so bad.

"I made the conscious decision to be really personal about the songs this time," says Waronker. "And also, I decided to be very obvious about it. If I was really depressed about getting it out, I wouldn't mask it with something funny. Before, I wrote a lot of the lyrics with a friend of mine, who I haven't written with very much recently, and she's really witty, and I'm sort of the downer of the two of us, so I'm trying to get my own wittiness out.

"I was obsessed with it in my life, so I figured I might as well use it. Maybe I could get over it that way."

The "it" of which Waronker speaks is the theme of Totally Crushed Out--the way in which relationships never completely end, their residue sticking around long after goodbyes are said and tears are shed and the occasional harsh words are muttered. And these could be relationships long dreamed about or ones that are long over, the never-realized crush of which Waronker sings on "Lip Gloss" or the bad choices of the unexpectedly hard-rocking "In the Back of My Mind" or inevitable end of "Anymore" or the unfulfilled love of "He's Kissing Christian" (as in "He's kissing Christian, and it's keeping me from eating").

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky