“It’s one of the great tragedies of my political life that Democrats get all the great musicians,” Joe Scarborough has said. Well, if the Dems stole rock and roll, the party of Lincoln is here to steal it back, now that the MSNBC host and former congressman is finally releasing his debut EP, “Mystified,” containing the first five of 400 songs Scarborough promises or threatens to release on a monthly basis in the coming years.
He must be thanking his lucky stars that news about Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow’s group became a major web meme this week, on the very eve of Scarborough’s recorded debut, if only to put things in comparative context. Alongside the chamber of rock horrors that is the Jay Sekulow Band, Scarborough’s somewhat hipper take on things sounds like the Beatles, Kinks, Springsteen, and Sonic Youth combined.
Rating elephantine rock is a relative thing, though, so while “Mystified” may surprise some comers by how low it rates on the vanity-project embarrassment scale, it reveals Scarborough as a highly aware mimic without any particular identity of his own. Musically, he’s the furthest thing from a maverick, even if he plays one on TV.
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Certainly there’s nothing here as terrible as the original country tune Scarborough debuted back on “The View” in 2012, “Reason to Believe,” which had the dubious honor of surpassing Paul McCartney’s “Freedom” as the worst 9/11 song ever. There’s nary a trace of that folksiness in the five amped-up songs on “Mystified,” which uses compressed production technique to create an up-to-the-moment wall of sound, and where Scarborough’s vocal tone sounds so cool and world-weary that you half expect him to bust out a British accent at any moment.
For at least one song, Scarborough sounds almost as cool as he means to be. In an interview about his musical inclinations last year, Scarborough name-checked the New Pornographers as one of his favorites, improbably. Maybe he didn’t even just pull that out of a hat, because damn if the opening title track doesn’t sound a lot like the newish records of the New Pornographers, with their synthetic flourishes, Eurodisco rhythms, and unabashed affection for pure pop. If you heard the song “Mystified” on KROQ in 1989, or 2017, you might not even bat an annoyed eye.
That fairly promising opener is a one-off, though, and some of the remaining tracks sound like he’s spent as much time listening to Bon Jovi as Britpop. “Superbad” opens with the horn section he uses at his New York bar gigs playing a riff right out of Sam & Dave, and that brass and the over-the-top female backing vocals are an oddly granddad-ish choice for a song that means to make it sound like Scarborough is hep to a modern NYC club scene he mocks with lines like “disco boys, cocaine and sex-shop toys.” But then, maybe it shouldn’t come as an extreme shock that there’s a deeply conservative streak to a record by, you know, Joe Scarborough.
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At times, it sounds like Scarborough wants to be the GOP Lou Reed, peppering the lyrics of “Girl Like That” with Manhattan-specific lines about femmes fatale who “spent the summer chasing hedge fund boys, doing nails at Avenue,” or the one who “gave me what I needed in a pickup truck, then she locked me in the Boom Boom Room.” Kudos where they’re due: This one’s as hooky as it is Lou-dicrous.
Meanwhile, the low point for everyone except Mika Brzezinski (and maybe for her, too, if she wanted to be as honest as she is on the show) is “Let’s Fall in Love,” a song Scarborough wrote for his fiancée, and maybe should have saved for a surprise at the gazebo. It’s nice that he drops the hepcat stance to get sweet on his gal for four or five minutes, but the big, anthemic chorus vocals seem designed for an arena that isn’t going to arrive; plus, probably nobody should say “babe” this much in anything that isn’t a movie about a pig.
If you’ve found any enjoyment in Scarborough marching to his own beat as a political commentator, what’s striking here is how much he really just wants to fit in as a mainstream rocker, even as he’s name-checking Chelsea locations for cred. The barest respect is probably the most that he can hope for from music critics, but now to await the only bad review that matters: Hannity’s, if Sean isn’t too mystified to even know where to begin critiquing.