Hope springs eternal

“Forget Skinner,” the frizzy-haired pillar of the local avant-garde was telling me at a club the other night. “MOM is the real deal.”

At the time, I didn’t know MOM from Magilla Gorilla, so the small girl-woman my art-damage-enthusiast friend was motioning toward, who looked away when he pointed, didn’t register. A few days later, upon opening SN&R to the music page, there was an account by Josh Fernandez of MOM rubbing a Willie’s chili burger in the face of an audience member.

Now, I have nothing against performance art. Of course, there is the old adage that one person’s performance-art piece is another person’s public manifestation of mental illness, but artists, even the most outsider ones, often have important things to say. Not sure how MOM’s CD sounds, though; I’m not going to exercise contempt prior to investigation, and I haven’t gotten ’round to investigating.

But I have been spinning the CD from a former local named Mark Lawrence.

Craft is often overlooked in the quest for truth, beauty and great music; “art” is the desired target. And while Swirl, the debut album by Lawrence—a current resident of Norfolk, Va., who once lived here and played in such bands as the Claustrophobes and Persephone’s Bees—has plenty of art, it’s the superbly crafted nature of the record that overwhelms.

Ears, of course, is an absolute sucker for sweet little Beatlesque collections of songs, and Lawrence has come up with a fine batch. The disc opens with the title track, a marvelous confection anchored with acoustic guitars played against rotoscoped electric axes, while shifting through several tempo changes. “Black Box” plays layered vocals against a minor-key electric wash; imagine if XTC had recorded The Dark Side of the Moon. “Torn” thrums with sweet vibrato, like the perfect marriage between Elvis Costello and Gram Parsons. Sublime.

And even on a slightly cheesier tip, like “All Over My Wall,” which sounds like Todd Rundgren channeling Rupert “Piña Colada Song” Holmes over a lilting bossa-nova beat; or “Plastic Fish,” a campy, jazzy romp that ends with a riff-rock shebang (which might be perfect soundtrack fodder if SpongeBob SquarePants ever decides to make a sequel), there are so many creative ideas spilling out of the grooves of this fine album that one can overlook the chef topping a masterpiece of a meal with a little Velveeta.

Although Lawrence seems like a one-man Paul McCartney or Emitt Rhodes, he did have some help: Members of the esteemed atmospheric San Francisco band American Music Club played on Swirl.

If you’re curious, go to www.myspace.com/marklawrencesongs. (And thanks to Chris Harrelson, a friend and one-time bandmate of Lawrence, who’s been playing me mixes of this album for months.)

It’s ironic that one of the more popular memes these days is that music sucks. We live in a time where there’s an embarrassment of riches, where the tools and technologies to make first-rate recordings have been placed into the hands of the average person, where the result of having the entire history of recorded music at our fingertips is beginning to bear fruit in the works of the people making that music.

The music isn’t broken; the delivery system is. So while artists like Lawrence—and Knock Knock and Ricky Berger and name a dozen of your brilliant unrecognized favorites—toil in obscurity, the Entercoms and CBS Radios and Clear Channels of the world continue to rub rotting chili burgers in our faces while telling us that we’re getting filet mignon.

We have corrections: I described the Onlymen as a trio last month; the band is a quartet, with Todd Weber contributing on guitar, vocals and songwriting. Ears regrets the gaffe.