Usually concept albums require wading through the morass of a half-baked dystopic sci-fi storyline, prog-ish leanings and a complete suspension of good taste. Hush Records founder and occasional troupe member of The Decemberists, Chad Crouch, offers up a far more timely and tasteful polemic interpretation. Cultural Norms is an attempt at a historical record, a snapshot of 2004. A world filled with reality TV (“Back to the Grind”), the war in Iraq (“A Soldier’s Story”), the debate over gay marriage (“Just Us”), obesity and image insanity (“I’m Fat”), video game violence (“Digital Pedestrians”), etc. You get the point.
Crouch’s decision to fashion these topics into airy, untidy chamber-pop is somewhat perplexing. If he is really concerned about the gravity of these situations, why treat them with the utmost levity? Compounding this is Crouch’s sly turns of phrase and erudite wittiness sung like a drawling Stuart Murdoch or a lisping Stephen Malkmus. On “Back to the Grind,” he skewers deserving targets from The Apprentice with “She took the fall: guileless, gullible/she should have stood up for herself/with her suitcase in tow she considered it all/phrases for eventual overdubs.” He also offers up indictments of his potential fan base, the know-it-all critics (“You Shouldn’t Have Said That”) and serial downloaders (“Filesharer’s Lament”). It’s hard to tell where Crouch stands on some of these issues thanks to his glib societal deconstruction. If anything, Cultural Norms shows the aloof hipster mindset: well informed, but still too burdened by a love of irony to take important issues seriously. It may not work on every level, but it’s definitely a thought-provoking album.