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Nashville Scene In Style

Mecyssne updates timeless music

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 17, 1998:  In song, Victor Mecyssne often sounds like he's just walked out of a film noir scene. As he sings, we can practically see the camera panning around a neon-lit corner on a rain-splattered night in some suave yet threatening urban location. Mecyssne's black-and-white world is full of seductive shadows, sly winks, and curls of smoke. It's a soundtrack for Robert Mitchum and Ida Lupino, not for Robert Downey and Uma Thurman.

Although his subjects are as modern as tomorrow morning, Mecyssne doesn't write about a quick-cut world of blood-splattering color, screeching wheels, and blaring sirens. Instead, he creates a more cultured domain, one filled with sharkskin suits, silk stockings, and saucy secrets. Drums are brushed instead of beaten, guitars are plucked instead of strummed, and the bass is balanced on the floor instead of strapped around a musician's shoulder. When it's time for a solo, the bandleader tips his brow toward a sweet sax or a hothouse harmonica. It's a stylized world, for sure, yet it's one worth visiting.

Over two albums, this year's Hush Money and 1995's equally entertaining Personal Mercury, Mecyssne has developed a persona as an urbane Southern hipster with a poetic tongue and a jazzy musical touch. His old-styled music saloon songs, as Sinatra would have called them finds its influences in classic figures such as Hoagy Carmichael and Mose Allison as well as more contemporary cats such as Jesse Winchester and Lyle Lovett.

In his way, Mecyssne sets himself up as a somewhat more sober and exceedingly more Southern version of Tom Waits. That's dangerous territory: A slip too far on the side of mock suaveness, and he ends up sounding like a finger-snapping jazzbo parody straight out of Saturday Night Live. Just as easily, he could become a zoot-suit clown (like so many other young swingsters these days), or an over-romanticized Southern songsmith who strains too hard to conjure up images of the Crescent City or mint juleps and key lime pie.

But Mecyssne gets the balance just about perfect. Onstage, where he's at his best, he peppers his songs with a cappella verse and a droll persona that sets the right tone for his music. The romanticism of street life is there, though it doesn't always come off as intended: Even if Mecyssne's Shakespeare-quoting whore is believable, his alluring allusion to downtown sex shops affords too much gloss to a gloomy reality.

Still, songs like "Lower Broadway" from Hush Money and "Sleepy Nashville Town" from Personal Mercury are part of what makes Mecyssne a relevant, current artist. By drawing on his own environment, he's doing more than imitating a musical format once mastered by Peggy Lee and Mel Torme. He's making a timeless sound work for the world in which he lives.

As Mecyssne sings, "Once you've been to Amsterdam, Des Moines is Des Moines." Listening to his records, it's clear that he feels much the same way about music: Once you've heard Hoagy Carmichael, it's hard to feel the same about Billy Joel or Billy Corgan.

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