The musical couple Parker Noon and Lily Wolfe, formerly of the Austin-based psycho-lounge outfit Valentine Six, redefined themselves on last year’s Hello Halo (Orange), their debut as Parker and Lily and a more subliminal, soundtrack-styled twist on the theme of lounge music as candy-coated nightmare. The duo’s new Here Comes Winter (Manifesto) confirms that they’ve done well to follow their instincts into deeper explorations of romance in glamorous ruin. It’s a Coney Island of the mind to be reckoned with, a surreal psychic ride between sweet nostalgia and brutal reality, the superficial and the sublime.
Vintage electronics invariably evoke a disorienting mood simply by virtue of being old and obsolete, and Parker and Lily, who come to the Milky Way this Monday, use piles of them. Their songs are built from layers of cheap and cheesy drum machines and second-hand keyboards. The time-warp effect is magnified by blurring the edges into distorted near-abstraction by running individual tracks back through tube amps. "Which," Noon explains when I call, "takes off the hi-fi edge that, in my mind, destroys most modern music. I hate hearing all that depth. I miss the tiny wall of sound of those monophonic, monodimensional singles of yesteryear."
On Here Comes Winter, the time is somewhere between 1960 and the future, and the scenery is a slow-rolling panorama of late-night subway rides and neon cocktail signs, smoke-filled motel rooms, glaring airport terminals, streaks of landscape through the window of a moving car. It’s a story about a couple who spend too much time apart and too much time together, who’ve been in love long enough to know something about faith and faithlessness. Sexual infidelity haunts the album right through its most convivially kooky moments. The lyrics tell the story cryptically, with a precise, poetic minimalism that says little and suggests everything, as in "You Are My Matinee," a stirring little six-line poem on the subject of an illicit encounter. The guilt is implied in "Motel Lights": "Lipstick on a book of matches/Blue light in patches with the volume down." The music is what makes it hurt — a heartwrenching moment of suspension, and then the release of a ring of guitar strings, like a held breath.
Noon says his approach to lyric writing is "a constant process of subverting my initial thoughts. Everything gets boiled down to undercut each particular sentiment, so no one ever says ‘I love you’ without hooking a barb in it somewhere, and no one ever says ‘I hate you’ without . . . ‘I need you.’ "
Duality is the essential principle of Here Comes Winter — the album’s considerable merit lies in a yin/yang harmony of unflinching extremes. Beautiful sweeps of steel guitar (contributed by Speedball Baby’s Matt Verta-Ray; keyboardist Christina Campanella has since joined the band) against a sea of faraway electronics. Wolfe’s bubbly, girlish harmonies against Noon’s low, menacingly sexual monotone — a voice so dark and intimate you can practically smell the bourbon on his breath. The album’s charming mix of kitschy retro references — 1960s French pop, perky Japanese teen beats, ’50s mambo, Martin Denny tiki-melodies — makes the underlying hypnotic melancholia that much more tragic.
Parker and Lily — who split their time between homes in Manhattan and Athens, Georgia — were a study in contrasts from the time they met 12 years ago, at Bennington College. Wolfe was a classically trained musician who says she didn’t hear a lot in the way of cool music until she was in her 20s; Noon was a fanatical record collector with an intuitive ear and no formal music education. "I tend to be extremely detail-focused and I almost never see the overview," she says. "It doesn’t interest me. I want to deal with that one tiny thing that’s interesting that leads me to the next tiny little thing. Parker’s personality is more about the big picture. I think since he was three years old he’s probably had one big vision or another. I’m always relieved in working with him to have that burden taken from me so that I can concentrate on filling out the vision. I think it’s a matter of trust."
Their differences make for a functional working relationship. "I tend to get very rigid with the rules sometimes," Wolfe adds. "You know, ‘You can’t go there, those are the wrong chords, that doesn’t work.’ It’s very easy for me to go back to that formal thinking, and I often need to be pulled out of it."
It would be simplistic to sum Parker and Lily up as a light/dark pair, though the witty, good-natured Wolfe clearly represents the sunny side: "There’s probably more of that at work than I’m inclined to admit." She pauses to listen to something Noon is saying in the background. "Parker wants to know which one he is." She pauses again, then laughs. "He says he’s more of a fuchsia, really."
Parker and Lily perform this Monday, November 11, at the Milky Way, 405 Centre Street in Jamaica Plain. Call (617) 524-3740.