Album Review: Midtown Dicken’s Oh Yell

by Matt Goldman

If I had to imagine how the Raleigh-based female duo Midtown Dicken put together their debut album Oh Yell, I wouldn’t see it as your typical studio session.

There was probably a lot of smiling, maybe some drugs, a veritable buffet of instruments and inanimate objects used in their stead, and substantial amounts of improvisation.

Actually, when I heard the first track I had trouble conceptualizing any studio being involved at all. “Eggs and Toast” sounded like it could have been created on the back patio of someone’s house during one of those semi-coherent, late-night, post-party jam sessions that we’ve all been privy to at least once in our lives. The song starts with a simple guitar riff and what sounds like drum sticks hitting a block of wood.

As would be expected, the lyrics convey a similar off-the-cuff tone: “I want you to like me so we can go get breakfast/ You can get eggs and toast.”

Track 2 gets a bit deeper… kind of. It’s called “Guitars” and makes a unique argument for banjos over guitars. One verse, my personal favorite, goes something like this: “Guitars and airports they’re both the same/ You can take off from both just to come back again/ and they both smell like sweet, sweet, sweet Lucky Charms/ that get soggy in milk and then they fall apart/ But banjos are neat/ I think banjos are neat.”

I’m sold. Needless to say the lyrics were accompanied by a guitar and a banjo with a bit of fiddle mixed in.

Like I said, these ladies (Kym Register and Catherine Edgerton) use a mélange of instruments. At various points in the album, Catherine and Kym play the guitar, drums, banjo and fiddle along with some trumpet, trombone, slide whistle, ukulele, accordion, piano and bass. They also include in their musical repertoire a skateboard, cups, bottle caps and a “tinky thing.”

There are some less absurdist, somewhat more serious songs on Oh Yell. “Cowboy,” the fourth track for example, concerns itself with a relationship that’s gone by the wayside. It maintains a slower, darker tone accompanied by metaphorical lyrics like, “Were you aware of your loaded gun?/ It would have hurt a lot less if you were a straight shooter/ Were you really aiming at me?/ Better pack up your bags and run/ Like you do every time when you’ve come undone.”

Appropriately, they are able create an eerie, old west shootout feel, with their skillful musical saw playing droning throughout the track.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the essence of Oh Yell and Midtown Dickens overall is more playful than anything else. How can it not be when on track 10 they devote two minutes and 16 seconds to explaining how awesome the old-school video game Tetris is? Notably, this is the track that puts to use cups as a means of percussion.

There is something strangely charming about this album. Perhaps it’s the apparent innocence of it all. Register and Edgerton weren’t trying to make a profound, monumental opus with Oh Yell they were just having a bit of fun and they wanted to share it with anyone willing to listen.

It’s doubtful that these ladies have a formal mission statement of any kind but they sum themselves up nicely in a letter which accompanied the CD: “We’d rather barely get by on an instrument we don’t know than play the cello flawlessly, and we value the quirkiness and delicate perfection of things that aren’t perfect.” A few sentences later they add, “We harmonize with the purity of swans.”

Yep, sounds about right.

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