Unthinkingly, I didn’t save Robert Ray’s response to what could only be called a fan letter, and I don’t recall exactly what the former co-leader of the Vulgar Boatmen wrote. But I know why I wrote him. First I met someone, and then a copy of a mix tape containing the Vulgar Boatmen’s “Heartbeat” opened me up perfectly, adult emotion as intimate undercurrent for what could only be called a pop song. While completists will elbow in here to say how The Gizmos’ version, the original one written by Boatmen co-founder Dale Lawrence, before he was a Boatman, is the more crucial recording, rhyming “beatin'” and “needin'” with a let’s-go count… well, not so for me. I haven’t listened to that tape or talked to that person since forever, but Hesitation Eyes, with backlit associations including the remembered warmth of the Boatmen, is one of the most meaningful departures from the rock show I’ve heard in a while. It’s an album that makes me feel the way I felt way back when.
The smart, Pavement-like lumping together of love and outdoor sports with what it feels like to be the one willing for one last try might be just what you expect from a band called The Foxymorons, but Hesitation Eyes is no laconic try-on. Instead, long-distance collaborators Jerry James and David Dewese are so unassuming in their affections that it all sounds instantly right. Anyone who enjoys music knows what a rarity it is to find a longplayer where every song hits its mark. And, of course, there probably is no more subjective balloon to loft in a music review. But Hesitation Eyes is more than deserving (even if the Foxymorons are quiet about it).
Previously James and Dewese have had fun with their proud Texas roots (as well as Big Star infatuation) with a now-out-of-print 2001 full-length called Rodeo City, recorded by Centro-matic’s Matt Pence. With Hesitation Eyes the pop sensibility is equally inherent, but with more subtly drawn lines (here Pence does the mixing). Power pop is less evident (though still present in Dewese’s rouser “Terror on the Tarmac”) in favor of some Wilco-style loose-limbed electronics heard on “A Magazine Called Sunset.” There is some whirring, some clicking, but they don’t take away from the twilight moments or the gloried, tamped-down “Good Vibrations” back-up heard on “Just Because,” where the past can’t be rearranged and it would hurt even more if somehow it could.
I like how easy Hesitation Eyes sounds, James’ slightly ragged, plaintive vocals perfect for the slim, flinching cadence of “Harvard Hands”: “The spring is when this firm recruits/ I’ll polish off my navy suit/ I can set your pulse to rest/ I love you though I’m second best.” It lopes like any one of the best early Pavement songs, and you don’t even care that someone else’s prints are all over it. It only impresses that intelligent slack hasn’t lost its appeal and that James is no mere stand-in. Meanwhile, Dewese is the more Dando of the two, with the smoothed-out delivery of the onetime Lemonheads’ frontman or a less breaking Lou Barlow. Not surprisingly, Dewese also plays in the Luxury Liners, the full-frontal pop machine that The Foxymorons are not. And that isn’t a bad thing either.
The sound of “The Lazy Librarian’s Son” conveys so much feeling that most of Dewese’s words seem beside the point, save for lines such as these: “It might take a while to realize/ But I’m telling you with regretful eyes/ Hold on to what you’ve come to find/ As boring and ordinary.”
That James and Dewese aren’t of the same pop mind is what makes The Foxymorons so attractive. That they telegraph their hits into each other’s answering machines and mailboxes isn’t so much a novelty but what affords the music – some banjo, soft piano, revving power chords and pure harmonies – its identity. With any luck the attention they’re currently getting – including a “Band of the Day” mention on Spin.com – will keep The Foxymorons from slipping into the same obscurity as other thoughtful lo-fi interpreters the Mysteries of Life or Sleepyhead (to name just two). Hesitation Eyes is winning in its ease and reflection: favorite records, better-spent afternoons, and how life bends you but doesn’t break you. Not so simple after all.