The Cairo Gang has crafted a marvelous album, full of detours and humanity.Drag City, 2015
9.1 / 10
The ’60s have been mined for inspiration over and over again. At this point, it’s almost a cliché to even be a fan of classic ’60s albums. The studio tomfoolery of Brian Wilson has been replicated by the Olivia Tremor Control, the melodic, British take of street life perfected by Ray Davies has been taken on by the Libertines, and the baroque stylings of the Left Banke have become so wide-ranging as to influence Belle and Sebastian, Grizzly Bear, and Mikal Cronin. But every now and then a songwriter comes along that marries the sound of that tumultuous decade with their own distinct songwriting. These are your Robert Pollards, your Britt Daniels, and now, Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Gang.
While the name may be relatively unknown for such high praise, Kelly has been toiling on the fringes of indie music for years now. His first release as the Cairo Gang came out in 2006, and contained a low-key collection of folk songs that would not hint at all at what was to come. His most famous musical moment was a stint backing the somber Will Oldham on his 2010 LP The Wonder Show of the World. But shortly after this detour, The Cairo Gang returned in 2013 with the phenomenal EP Tiny Rebels. Almost abandoning the previous sound entirely, the EP revealed a debt to garage and pop masters like Gene Clark and Arthur Lee. Songs like “Tiny Rebels” and “Shake Off” were warmly produced and sharp, the tight melodic composition and Rickenbacker tones complementing Kelly’s raw voice.
It is this sound that the Cairo Gang follows down the rabbit hole on Goes Missing, to ambitious and gorgeous results. One song notwithstanding (we’ll get to that later), Kelly has crafted a masterpiece of modern, retro-gazing pop, with inspiration spilling out of its ears and a veritable buffet of varied, strongly written songs. While almost the entire album is astoundingly solid, there are three tracks that tower high above the rest, serving as conduits into the lo-fi, blissful world Kelly has crafted. “Be What You Are”, “She Don’t Want You”, and “Ice Fishing” are beaming, brilliant examples of classic pop.
“Be What You Are” fires into view, a cannon-shot to the brain that lays out Kelly’s lyrical agenda plain and clear. “I want to find myself in stranger places/ I want to be the only one around who don’t belong here”, he sings, his crackling voice revealing startling range. “Ice Fishing” is a cousin to that track, both bursting forth on a chiming guitar melody and only getting more ebullient from there. The 12 string guitar popularized by the Byrds pops up on both tracks, and in interviews Kelly has expressed a love for the jangling sound of the instrument. The album as a whole reads as a love letter to the Rickenbacker, from the rebounding chords of “A Heart Like Yours” to the spidery riffs hovering around the sinister, drum-machine post-punk of “Sniper”.
The tender heart of the album comes with “She Don’t Want You”, a piece of perfectly Spectoral soul that utilizes Kelly’s self-harmonizing and some aggressive electric guitar to lead into a blooming chorus, one of the best on the album, which is saying quite a lot. Kelly played the majority of the instruments on the album, and it feels like these songs took form gradually, each snippet of melody percolating in a back pocket until the final product was ready to be shared.
The lyrics on the album range from broad themes to more specific tales and jaded observations of the world Kelly inhabits. He approaches the oft traveled topic of romantic impotence through a unique metaphor of trying and failing to perform the titular activity on “Ice Fishing”, and adds some disturbing imagery to the carefree melodies of “Gangsters Holding Hands”, with lines like “I saw you once throw yourself down some stairs/Just to avoid simply going downtown”. He knocks the judgmental nature of the music scene in his previous home of Chicago on the same song, “Getting around in the underground/ Drinking from its tepid rivers”, and the surreal imagery on “Open Sky” segues into a beautiful dual guitar solo.
Kelly’s voice itself is a jewel, capable of both high, Ronettes-like harmonies, to driving, power-pop forcefulness. On opener “An Angel, A Wizard”, he slathers his vocals in reverb, and they bump against the spacious arrangement like a docked boat nudging the shore. “So What? Who Cares?” shows the absolute depth of his range, and he is a dead ringer for Matt Berninger here, showing a much more engaging direction for that singer to go, rather than the ill-conceived EL VY project.
The only serious outlier is “Some Other Time”. The song is just Kelly and an upright bass, and its placing puts a serious dent in the otherwise wonderful pacing of the album. Taken on its own merits, the song is an interesting diversion, Kelly’s vocals looping upwards like a stunt plane, but in the scope of the whole album, it detracts from the experience.
The album may not make many top-ten lists, and ultimately the band is doomed, like Big Star and Jellyfish before them, to be loved by critics, rather than people. But for those who value song-craft, passion, and honesty in their music, rather than a neat falsetto or a ready-made backstory, the Cairo Gang has crafted a marvelous album, full of detours and humanity.