Tears of a Clown 

Beholding the oddly giddy melancholy of Our Lady of the Highway.

It is a testament to my affection for Oakland rock band Our Lady of the Highway -- and a misguided sense of entitlement regarding my favorite songs of theirs, "Coming Apart" -- that simple matters of vocal phrasing initially disturb and dismay me so.

"Coming Apart" would appear to tell the sordid, sorrowful tale of a baleful gentleman in love with a lesbian. Delivered by frontman Dominic East in his yearning, wide-eyed, almost ecstatically melancholy voice, it's a catalogue of witty, self-deprecating bons mots -- Find me a girlfriend/And buy me a drink/But not in that order -- set to a delicate barroom waltz, mixing the rustic woe of early R.E.M. with the beer-soaked masochism of American Music Club. That's right: woe mixed with masochism. But despite unloading one of the more awwwwww-worthy closing lines in recent memory (And you still like boys/In most of my dreams), Dominic sings it all giddily, even when he moans the chorus: I think I'm co-ming a-part at the seams.

But now, as recorded on the band's new album, Beauty Won't Save Us This Year, it's I think I'm comingapart at the seams. He runs the coming apart together for some reason. It's almost violently jarring, like walking into your apartment to find all the furniture rearranged.

I have since calmed down and warmed up to this permutation -- fans and bandmates of Dominic should expect such surprises. "I'm sure that song, because we've played it so much, has probably been victim of my whimsical phrasing," he admits.

"Whimsical" is the optimum word to describe Dominic's onstage behavior. His philosophy can perhaps best be summed up by the simultaneous joy and pain inherent in the Gary Stewart song title "She's Acting Single (I'm Drinking Doubles)." Watching Our Lady of the Highway throw down on a recent Sunday night at SF's tiny, familial, largely sit-down joint the Rite Spot, it takes a while to adjust. The vast majority of their tunes are sad-sack Pining for My Lady Friend odes, sometimes wistful (There's a side of me that still wants to thrill you), sometimes casually violent (There's a side of me that might want to kill you). Regardless, Dominic's facial expressions are downright goofy, exaggerated to almost John Belushi extremes, which he complements, between plaintive guitar strums, with jittery dance moves. His lyrics and the demeanor could hardly be more at odds. Whether calculated or unconscious, it's still off-putting and nerve-racking in that classic Michael Stipe-ian way.

"It's the dancing," Dominic says of the R.E.M. comparisons. "It's the gawkiness. It used to be a haircut, but I think now it's just the dancing. Make sure that somebody gets the dancing part. Dancing's very important to me."

But it's not just gawkiness that triggers such favorable comparisons -- Our Lady's profound excellence helps too. (As does bassist and guitarist Andrew Gerhan, an absolute dead ringer for Mike Mills both in look and job description.) Fans of quiet but devastating strummy Americana should go nuts for this stuff, and as it happens these guys are looking for someone to go nuts real soon, because they ain't got a label. "Well, we don't have one yet," Andrew says. "That's the short answer." He thinks for a second. "That's probably the short answer and the long answer."

So the band is hawking Beauty Won't Save Us This Year (the follow-up to 2004's About Leaving) to the Matadors and Sub Pops and Badmans of the world, and keeping themselves busy in the interim by ... finishing off another album, titled Kill You with Numbers. They're prolific, too -- just another reason why these dudes deserve a Rogue Wave-like discovery and ascendancy. "The songs were ready, you know?" Andrew reasons, holed up in the band's rehearsal space at Soundwave Studios, Oakland's three-story behemoth of a local band dormitory. "They can suffer if you don't record them as soon as they're ready to be recorded."

One such evidently suffering song is "Go Home," on which Dominic, perhaps pining for his salad days back in upstate New York, announces mournfully that If it's possible/I've completely wasted/Thirteen years in a city that I might end up hating/And all I really wanna do is go home. Of course, like everything else, he sings this with a slap-happy Looney Tunes grin on his face. Never mind. Find him a label, and buy him a drink. But not in that order.

Once again, the Express is soliciting mix CDs from the venerable DJs of the Bay Area, and flying the winner out to Miami's annual Ultra Music Festival in late March for a prime showcase in front of, like, eight billion people. Afterward, chill poolside with the Oakenfolds and the Van Dyks of the world. (Note: Actual Oakenfolds and Van Dyks subject to availability.) Genre is not nearly as important as splendid-ness.

Toss your one-CD mix to:
Rob Harvilla 3000
c/o East Bay Express
1335 Stanford Ave., Suite 100
Emeryville, CA 94608

Deadline is February 16. Any mix featuring samples from The Matrix will be automatically disqualified.

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