What will strike you right away about J. DiMenna's Awkward Buildings (Exotic) is how quickly it wins you over.
"We are awkward buildings in our ways of reaching out," sings DiMenna over a strummed acoustic guitar on the title track. Pedal steel and a little bit of drums enter; an electric guitar begins a descending scale; horns come in, and the song stretches its arms into warm indie folk rock. Awkward Building's melodies are subversively persuasive; the lyrics question the use of religion to answer complex questions. It's hard to believe that this is DiMenna's first album.
"I was raised Roman Catholic, and I was an altar boy at one point," said DiMenna. "I was one of those kids who was really hungry for some kind of religious sustenance early on and never got it and clearly saw a lot of contradictions within the Bible. (I) saw how attentive people were to interpreting every single word and really saw that there were inconsistencies in what people were talking about. ... For whatever reason, on this particular record, it was all I could write about."
DiMenna went to college in North Carolina, where he encountered "numerous upon numerous evangelical preachers," and, being someone interested in what religion can provide, DiMenna found himself trying to argue with some of their ideas, and getting nowhere.
"I just got tired and angry of hearing the same thing over and over again and got into a lot of debates ... about all of the hypocrisy and contradictions that were going on in the messages that they were trying to preach. So that ended up being a lot of what certain songs were kind of targeted at: those debates and discussions that I had with those people."
A slinking guitar melody introduces "Dirty Book," and DiMenna sings in a near-whisper as the drums and guitars swell into a haze, "You stand near my door / With hopes I'll sin no more / Heaven knows it's all folklore." Strings escalate the song into a meditative swirl, and then, "For When We Fall" kicks in with DiMenna singing, "It was just a book / made for just a look / for not to rule them all / just guides for when we fall."
"I'm just not sold on this so-called deal," DiMenna sings on "Preacher," "Rather be lost than follow these fools."
"Prayer Flag" takes a slightly more political bent, with twangs of Elliott Smith in the drums and guitars: "You invent all the new ways to keep us duped of the truth," DiMenna sings, "Endorsing versions of love that suit your intent to act as though above."
"What they end up conveying to us and completely overlooking is that whatever kind of religion you practice is a very personal choice, and it should be, and that should always be respected," said DiMenna. "And the desire to go out and change someone else's personal outlook in such a personal way is very selfish. And they're not seeing it that way, because they're being told in this kind of black-and-white manner that that's what they need to do. I can't quote from the Bible, and I've had those debates, and that's all they do: When you have those debates with those people, they just pull out John 3:17 or whatever, and the conversation's over. And so I tried to vaguely (respond) in a song."
DiMenna's songs, then, are musical counterarguments, expressions of emotions like "You might find out your Holy Ghost is just an old bed sheet / a musty attic full of board games, puzzles incomplete" ("Preacher"). His response is that there are no quotable answers. Instead, he creates musings that, jazz-like, focus on a musical idea and go with it until it ends. "Raggedy Ann" sounds like a klezmer band, with clarinets and DiMenna whispering, "Oh Raggedy Ann, I've had you since I feared the boogie man." "Given What We Know" rides on an electric guitar riff, swells and echoing ooohs.
"I just don't understand at all," DiMenna said, "when you look at nature, at the stars and sky or anything that you have accepted as part of the natural world that is completely mysterious, why the mystery just can't be embraced for what it is and be beautiful. It has to come down to a story for why it's all here. It will forever plague me as to why people have to have their little story to make sense of everything."