Album Review - Donald Cumming's "Out Calls Only"

By Nancy Dahl

New York-based Donald Cumming debuts his more nostalgic solo album with Cult Records, Out Calls Only, on June 16th.  Cumming was previously the founder, singer and songwriter of the group The Virgins, a band that successfully resurrected the pleasantly kitschy aspects of 80s music, from 2006 to 2013.  If pleasant and kitschy seem incompatible just watch their video “Private Affair” and laugh as a man in a thong drops his pants and the band undresses in a similarly hilarious and unsavory manner while playing tunes akin to the mid-seventies to late-eighties new wave pop rock group The Cars.  His solo album takes a more lovesick tone since he began writing it in the midst of his divorce and the breakup of his band; yet I could still imagine hearing it on a jukebox in a neon-lit neighborhood bar or pool hall any day of the week. The title itself suggests a distress call as Out Calls Only gives the impression of a one-way emergency line. 

The first song on the album is the single “Game of the Heart”, which immediately brings to mind Dire Straits with their up-tempo twang on electric guitars and syncopated tings on the ride cymbal as the vocals come in low and muffled. The song lazily sweeps you into a cigarette-smoking-on-a-sunny-day kind of feeling; maybe you’re on a raft, or maybe you’re letting the toil of your relationships drift away as you whistle along to Cumming singing, “It’s just a game of the heart // Somebody wins, everybody else loses.” 

With the introduction of some piano in the song “Sometimes Sweet Susan” (and partly due to the title’s similarity to “Sweet Caroline”) Neil Diamond pops into my head and I can only assume that while writing the song, Cumming must have been wearing a monochrome suit as he snapped and swayed along to the bouncy melody.  The next song “Shadow Tears” comes in misty and heartbroken. The gloomy vocals and tear-inducing crashes contradict the lyrics in the same opposing fashion as Helio Sequence’s “Lately.” 

With the song “In the Early Hours,” Cumming goes from concealed sadness to enamored as he describes being “locked into her eyes,” he almost howls as he sings that “It don’t matter if everything will be alright,” he just wants to look at her tonight. This would be a great song to melt the hearts of two lovers in a quarrel. “Scarecrow” feels closer to Dire Straits’ musicality as it begins with guitar riffs that later carry the rest of the song with accompanying tambourines and shakers.  “Scarecrow” is also the longest song on the album, the guitar solos transplant the listener to a grassy field with early seventies vibrations. At times the song verges on heavy but remains light as we envision “the wind blowing like a friend.”

In “Working It Out” Cumming pleads to potential suitors, “If she’s out on her own, leave her alone // Please, don’t take her home tonight while we’re working it out.” Cumming does a lot of fun things with his voice as he punches some syllables and draws others out, producing a groovy effect on his heartache. “Lonesome for You” feels like a brief message scratched on a notepad, “I’m lonesome for you…” Just so you don’t forget, because he certainly hasn’t.

In contrast “Break the Seal” slowly drifts to the ears in a style similar to the melancholy ambivalence of Mac DeMarco. In the middle of the song a man’s voice comes in the background, it’s mostly inaudible but it sounds like he’s reading a parting note from a fleeing flame, illuminating the title of the song. In the same vein, solo is the word that comes to mind in “Total Darkness” as Cumming only uses voice-over and guitar to describe the feeling of being left. Cumming concludes the album with “Spanish Horses,” a slow but sunny piano ballad  in which he requests “Remember when I loved you and know that I always will.” 

The subject matter of Donald Cumming’s aptly titled Out Calls Only may be one-sided but the brand of music is inspired by many facets of former genres, particularly in the 70s and 80s. His solo album is a much different work from the music he made while with The Virgins, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here especially as he moves to different stages of his life and past the heartbreaks embedded into this album. Out Calls Only is a pleasant listen; somehow Donald Cumming has made what could have easily crippled him for years into a wistful serenade conveying the sympathetic lovelorn conflict between yearning and apathy. You can enjoy the full album June 16th on Washington Square.

Concert Review: Hamilton Leithauser

Album Review - Outfit's "Slowness"