Less than a year after releasing its full-length debut, Pinboy, Alex Kimmell’s twodoggarage is back with A Gross Display of Penmanship, another eclectic, finely layered collection of solidly grounded pop songs made all the more impressive by its origins as an entry in the RPM Challenge, in which artists are challenged to write, record, and produce an album during the shortest month of the year.
As you might guess given Kimmell’s motivations for recording Penmanship, it’s a less than cohesive affair; he runs from the ringing guitars and rolling drums of the opening track, “Something Real” — the intro sounds like the opening moments of a Tom Petty record from an alternate universe’s 1980s — to the spacy, synth-dominated “Circles” and “The Runner,” which actually features guest verses from a rapper named Trae7. What may surprise you, however, is just how tightly crafted the album sounds: as with Pinboy, Kimmell manages to successfully walk the line between a rock sound that’s organic enough to breathe and pop arrangements that are smart and varied enough to hold your attention from one track to the next.
It’s really sort of dumbfounding to think that Kimmell put all this together in a month, because most of the stuff I listen to on a weekly basis is nowhere near as smartly constructed or consistently entertaining as A Gross Display of Penmanship, and this was created with a fraction of the time and money. Even when Kimmell walks familiar musical ground, as on “Rapunzel in Reverse,” he makes sure to distract you with a clever lyrical concept; the album is a case study in just how powerful a few chords and a home studio can be. Kimmell says this was an exercise in getting out of his own way and turning off his own censor, and you can feel that sense of freedom here — the record doesn’t sound tossed off, but when you’re in charge of your own album, it’s incredibly easy to end up spending so much time smoothing out the wrinkles that you lose track of what inspired you in the first place, and Penmanship thrums with creative energy.
It’s also one of the more intelligently sequenced, casually eclectic releases I’ve heard in awhile. It takes some doing to incorporate classic singer/songwriter stuff like “Can You Take Me Back,” “Enough,” and “Casually Disappearing” with more esoteric material, like the grungegrass ballad “Lift Me Up Carry Me Down,” the squalling basher of a title track, the previously mentioned “The Runner,” or “The 7th Runner,” which sounds like a cross between a David Byrne track and something from the soundtrack of a ’60s sci-fi movie — and one of the dangers of doing it all in a 40-minute LP is that of creating the impression that you’re more interested in showing what you can do than actually doing it well. Penmanship is a low-key affair, however; rather than sounding like he’s showing off, Kimmell really seems to be having fun. Spend some time with this album, and you will too.