By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
As two of this city's most tireless purveyors of positivity, Mark Pagano and Celia Shacklett have used their bands to pursue both musical and interpersonal harmony. Pagano leads Fire Dog with his strong, high tenor voice and knack for catchy pop grooves; Celia performs for kids and adults alike under her own name, but here she backs up Pagano on bass and vocals. May These Changes is purportedly a concept album about an Orwellian surveillance state with a "love is the answer" moral, but — thankfully — that structure doesn't impede or overwhelm the solid and goodhearted pop at work on the LP.
Whether or not the "concept" of May These Changes comes through in the lyrics, the album certainly kicks off with a bit of downtempo grandiosity on "Prelude," as the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra begin the show with a simple but stirring pattern of Wurlitzer, theremin and ascending strings and horns. Those motifs return on the closing song, an updated version of "May These Changes Make Us Light," and in between those two bookends, Pagano and company stuff the program with strummy, jammy fare like "Future" and "Transformer," two songs that harken the spiritual awakening for the story's hero.
The thread of this concept gets frayed from time to time — "Hellbender" injects a little They Might Be Giants-esque bit of science and ecology on the titular endangered salamander in the course of a fun, geeky two-minute song. Oh, and Canadian folk legend Bruce Cockburn (a friend and tourmate of Celia) literally phones in a voice-over on the two-minute track. Most of these stylistic curveballs work, though Pagano's half-hearted hip-hop verses on "M.A.N." are pretty cringeworthy, even with the electronic textures and bona-fides of Stan Chisholm (a.k.a. 18&Counting). But it's a slight misstep by a band that takes bright-eyed cheerfulness very seriously.
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