Mac DeMarco: Five Easy Hot Dogs Album Review

Bob Rafelson’s 1970 film Five Easy Pieces ends with the hero, played by Jack Nicholson, hitching a ride on a northbound truck and disappearing into anonymity. Mac DeMarco is too larger-than-life to ever be anonymous, but this scene is a good starting place for considering his new Five Easy Hot Dogs. Ever since he sang “What mom don’t know has taken its toll on me” on 2014’s Salad Days, he has been exploring a long post-adolescent hangover, the feeling of emerging on the other side of your young and carefree days and seeing little that looks exciting in your future. This thread came to a head on 2019’s Here Comes the Cowboy, a record whose burnt-out ballads were full of dead friends, departed lovers, and uncertain plans. Now here are 14 instrumentals made on a long and spontaneous solo road trip, where DeMarco pledged “not go home to Los Angeles until I was done with a record.” This is a listless album about being listless, and it’s a pretty accurate picture of the stretches of useless, money-burning time that come with being on the road.

Five Easy Hot Dogs isn’t DeMarco’s first instrumental release. 2015’s Some Other Ones was recorded in five days and released as a free download, and it grew naturally out of the fizzle and spark of Salad Days. Hot Dogs continues in the lugubrious vein of Here Comes the Cowboy, rarely exceeding the tempo of a resting heart rate. The familiar Mac palette is apparent as soon as “Gualala” kicks in—spidery acoustic guitar, a pleasingly round bass tone, the tap of a cheap drum machine, and a synth that sounds like a little bird commenting mockingly on the (lack of) action. But rather than building, developing, or even meandering as his songs tend to do, these pieces simply putter along for a while and end. The songs themselves seem to be twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something more exciting to happen.

As much as any Mac DeMarco release, Five Easy Hot Dogs resembles Gorillaz’ The Fall, another road diary whose half-formed songs were named for the places they were recorded. As with Hot Dogs, it was the nature of The Fall to stand slightly apart from the Gorillaz catalog, a repository for spontaneous ideas rather than a po-mo pop-prankster triumph to rank with the project’s first three albums. But in both records is the desire to make this music a little better than it needs to be, creating an atmosphere of bleariness that approximates the actual feeling of exhausting transcontinental travel. Both artists also succeed by incorporating cute little filigrees that diversify the landscape. “Victoria” gains tension from a synth melody whose notes hover in the air, casting creepy chords against the innocuous tiki-bar backing. The pan-flute sound effect on “Portland 2” is so goofy that you might not even notice the little metallic plinks in the background that contribute both a tactile feeling and their own subtle rhythm.

These moments speak to DeMarco’s gifts as an arranger and his ear for woozy textures, but even when held to the standard of his earlier instrumental work, Five Easy Hot Dogs comes up short. Some Other Ones is livelier, and the simmering lo-fi instrumentals on his Them and us compilations, even ones with names like “Organ Ronald Donkey Water,” possess a mystery and depth missing from these clean-lined, minimal compositions. Although each track is named for where it was recorded, there’s not much to distinguish one stop from another, and although you could connect the locations into a journey, these tracks don’t form an arc but play as if stacked atop one another. You won’t find much of the excitement and mythology of the American road trip here—just the feeling of being stuck between destinations and not being totally sure where you’re going.

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Mac DeMarco: Five Easy Hot Dogs

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