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Music Review: The Fontanelles’ debut is messy, real — and awesome

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Even casual skimmers of this publication’s weekly music-review section have probably noticed that the reviewer has a tendency to frequently harp on the fact that some artists just don’t know when to stop fussing with their albums. So many submissions are tweaked and perfected and quantized and cleaned to the point where they barely resemble human expression anymore. And that’s what music is about: communicating human emotions that are recognizable as such. When those emotions are buffed out and filled out with aural silicone, it’s a red flag. And, these days, everyone has access to digital tools that make this choice tempting and easily accessible.

Luckily, there are still people out there who just get it, and Dave Mehling is one of them. Whether he’s flying solo, playing with Portage or leading The Fontanelles, he just knows when to leave well enough alone. While singers like John Mark Nelson are getting all the press for making airtight music for uptight people with plastic on their furniture, Mehling is out there making stuff that sounds like true, instinct-led expression.

In the opening moments of The Fontanelles’ debut, “Strangers Please Take Care,” Mehling raggedly sings over a yearning piano about his dirty face and wrinkled shirt, coming off like a northern Harry Nilsson just waking up hungover. “I’m the one for you,” he asserts to his significant other. Suddenly, the whole band enters, and the song turns into a grimy, rhythmic groover. A guitar solo sprouts, and some subtle brass enters the picture. Everything breaks down, a bass solo(!) takes over, and then a crazed saxophone and drum solo go ape like some Miles Davis fever dream.

What is happening? Awesome is happening.

And that’s just the first track. It’s a gutsy first salvo, but it’s got self-assurance and attitude to carry it. “Don’t Be So Beautiful,” the second song, is a more traditional Paul Westerberg-styled Mehling ditty. “I was deaf, dumb and blind to the talk of this town,” he sings, his voice cracked and yearning. “All those gold sounds on the radio play / making me jealous.” The song hums along nicely, but it hits a point around the three-minute mark where the lead guitar hits upon just the right melodic line, and the band swells in recognition behind it to push it over the top into something much greater than nice: electricity.

In fact, while Mehling’s creative voice is the loudest, here, it’s the interplay of the individual bandmembers that makes this album work so well. They’ve got a great idea of how to spruce up songs with ear candy that adds rather than distracts (those horns in opener “I Am the One” and the strings in “Call Me Later” are prime examples of this), and their interwoven parts in songs like “Downtown” — which is almost prog-like at points — and “Emily” are impressive in the way that the best of bands like Wilco and Dr. Dog are.

The production and engineering on this album are something to be noted, too. Drummer Jason McGlone gets the main credit for this, and he mixed the album, as well. Just as Mehling’s approach to singing and playing and lyric-writing gives everything just enough attention without tipping the scales toward Overdonesville, McGlone expertly makes “Strangers Please Take Care” a listening experience that is completely pro without seeming like it’s trying to keep pace with a Katy Perry album or something. This is real music played and recorded in a real way.

There’s a difference between a guy who has a decent car that he takes good care of and a guy who feels the need to wash his car for two hours in his driveway and then hand-dry the whole thing with a crisp white towel on a strict schedule. The Fontanelles, they’re cool with a little dust on their windshield. It’s part of life.

Really, this record is a pleasure to listen to, top to bottom. Songs are allowed to be poppy three-minute jobs or seven-plus minute epics that justify their every second, moods run from downcast R&B to something resembling punk to acoustic balladry, and Mehling’s words and vocals are engaging and completely lacking in pretense while also not forgetting to be interesting and memorable.

“Strangers Please Take Care” is one of the best albums the always-interesting Mehling’s been involved with, and it’s surely one of the best Minnesota-grown records of 2015.

Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at tonybennettreviews@gmail.com.

Artist: The Fontanelles

Album: “Strangers Please Take Care”

Recorded by: Jason McGlone

Website: thefontanelles.com

Personnel: Dave Mehling (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Jason McGlone (drums), Darin Reiland (guitar), Beau Jeffrey (bass)

Album-release show: 7 p.m. Saturday with Lord Montague, Philip of Nazareth and Rick McLean at Beaner’s Central, 324 N. Central Ave.