I first saw Phil Mahlstadt’s side project inBOIL opening for the enigmatic Elden Calder almost a year ago. His disarming set caught me completely off guard. Two of Sleeping in the Aviary’s members had already released solo projects, but I had no idea that Mahlstadt, too, had his own songs. I confess to being a complete sucker for anything the Aviary boys do, but there is a perfectly good reason for that: It’s all pretty awesome. What it lacks in production it makes up for in clever lyrics and catchy tunes. Even though the CD runs just shy of twenty-five minutes, it packs a wallop. In fact, the charmingly lo-fi Daddy tole me is reminiscent of early tracks by the Mountain Goats and Bright Eyes. Those first releases were raw, emotional, and sometimes hard to listen to, but ultimately rewarding.
Compared with the work of those artists, the songs here may seem happier and more naïve, but that’s strictly on the surface. You don’t have to dig very deep to expose the dark side. “Bro-choice” should be part of sex education class on the importance of birth control. You can hear the desperation and exhaustion in its repeated lines, “Our baby’s crying and we don’t know why. My girlfriend’s crying because she can’t sleep. I told her it was a mistake we shouldn’t keep. I told her it was secret that we could keep.” Eventually the dog is barking and the neighbors are calling the cops, and then there’s the punchline with its laughing trombone echo, “No oh, no oh, she didn’t listen.” “I Miss the War” ripples with post-traumatic stress—“Watching entire villages go up in flames is way more fun than my video game.” And in the dark final track, “On the Run,” the narrator is just that after hitting a bicyclist—“His brains stained the snow.”
Even “Hot Doggin’,” an adorably sweet reminiscence of new love, isn’t as perfect as it seems. The happy-go-lucky romance, “We were love makin,’ bedpost shaking, it was so nice waking up next to you. We were rainbow ridin,’ Shakespeare citing, there was nothing I was hiding from you,” ends with “But I was sneaking liquor and that was kicker.” Perhaps the disc’s smartest track, “Machines” laments the replacement of retail workers with automated ones. The video store clerk lost his job to Redboxes and Netflix, while the grocery store checker has become useless with the arrival of the self-checkout lane. Perhaps the best line on a CD full of great lines comes from the clothing store employee replaced by the Internet, “And you won’t be tempted by the Cinnabons at the mall, and you won’t be embarrassed when a size thirteen’s too small.”
Its charm doesn’t end with the songs; the packaging is equally intriguing. Only a hundred copies were produced, but once you see the effort that went into the handmade book with its photocopied notebook of lyrics, even that seems like a ridiculous number. Not only that, but to make each copy even more individual, every disc has a different name. Mine is called Daddy tole me, but the person who entered it into iTunes has one called New Yeller, which I guess makes that the default title. Admittedly inBOIL isn’t for everyone, but I’ll tell anyone who asks that Mahlstadt is some sort of genius. I hope Phil still remembers me when he’s as big as Conor Oberst.