I love the title of this album -- it was the best laugh I had all day. The last Dunces album was full of gentle laughs in the face of postadolescent insecurity. This collection is more mature, more honest and more downright pop. The Dunces are sounding more and more like another wonderful atternative pop act, Shoes. Tunesmith John Dunbar has reached well beyond the Randy Newman tongue-in-cheek school of writing he displayed in his earlier songs; Dunbar just comes out and says it, and he's got plenty to say.
East Coast Rocker, 12/11/91
The Orion folks don't seem to have much of a sense Of humor, considering how they filed suit against a West Coast restaurant chain for an advertising that poked fun at Kevin Costner's cowboys and Indians epic. Well, then, more power to A Confederacy Of Dunces! Their second album, Dunces With Wolves, not only alludes to the movie's name, but their founding member, John Dunbar, suffers the peculiar coincidence of having the same name as Costner's character. His timing couldn't have been better, then for his first album, featuring his songwriting lunacy and bandmates Joe Pampel, Michael Deff McClung, Sean Grissom and Phoebe Legere. Too fun to be suppressed by stuffed shirts and other assorted penguin types.
The Hard Report, 10/04/91
Funniest album title/concept of the year (if not the '90s) comes from the Queens-based, Kinksy quartet A Confederacy of Dunces, which just self-released its second disc, Dunces With Wolves, on its Old School label. But what elevates this from being just another cute-bordering-on-annoying pun is that the Dunces are fronted by one John Dunbar, who "shares" said moniker with the Oscar-winning noble white guy portrayed by Joe Montana-lookalike Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. Of course, this all wouldn't be worth a damn, let alone an item, if Dunbar didn't write damn good songs, and if the Dunces weren't a damn good band.
A Confederacy of Dunces (who at present fall somewhere in between fellow New Yorkers Too Much Joy and the Kinks) return with Dunces with Wolves (Old School Records). John Dunbar's Ray Davies-like voice is complemented by some great guitar playing by Joe Pampel and great drumming by Aviars Smits (who was a member of perhaps the only Latvian rockband). Bassist Michael Duff McClung was also a member of Pilgrim Soul (Pampel, Smits, McClung are all new members because Dunbar had an amiable parting of the ways with his original band.) Most of the songs are Dunbar's sketches of life concerning people you might know; the girl who has to settle for less in "Fine Art of Settling," the guy who is so cheap in "Mr. Stinginess." Dunbar claims that much of his material comes from his small home town of Sunnyside, New York,but that it could just as well as come from New Orleans (where Mr. O'Toole wrote his hilarious book).
University of New Orleans Driftwood, 10/24/91
When A Confederacy Of Dunces (named from John Kennedy O'TooIe's novel) demo initially graced our Great Neck office, we were bowled over by this Queens foursome's bland, gushy harmonies and the formidable, if modest and unassuming, pop muscles rippling through the songs. Now, with an entire sharply produced CD to show for themselves, John Dunbar and his gang shyly offer up some of the most finessed, masterfully understated and melodically rich pop we've heard this year, competitive with veterans such as Squeeze and Crowded House. Pure as milk and twice as smooth, Dunbar's vocals (noticeably close to Difford/Tillbrook falsetto crooning) never stumble over even, rounded melodies, guitars ringing in the background, the clear, jaunty rhythms snapping casually, more like Shoes or the sweeter side of the Stiff label's heyday than any shimmery '60s revivalisms. The Sneetches are another group of underlooked, overendowed tunesmiths comparable with ACOD's uninterrupted flow of surefooted melodies and considerate, fine-focused lyrics, but ACOD's are of a less quirky strain, perhaps one of the scant few bands around to concentrate wholly on a well-crafted radio song. "The Coolest Guys," "She Loves Wintertime/A Sight To See," "Thought That it Was Love, and "Betsey Johnson Dress" are bright-eyed, subtle pleasers for those who need no gimmicks or scenes to validate their listening.
CMJ New Music Report, 12/06/91
Here's a mix of listener-friendly folk-rock with the kind of misanthropy that's been a singer-songwriter staple since ol' Bobby Z took potshots at his Fourth Street buddies in '65. Like his auspicious model, A Confederacy of Dunces wordsmith John Dunbar casts a jaundiced eye toward almost everyone he meets while wooing listeners with deceptively catchy tunes. You'll be bouncing along with the music while you pity the poor souls who populate the verses.
That's not to say Dunbar is condescending or venomous. While there are servings of detached Irony, particularly in the snooty "The Coolest Guys" (an ode to the black-clad posers who jump to attention at the sound of the latest groove, no matter how trite) and the too-literal slice of urban life, "The Land Of Opposites," the best selections view their subjects with empathy.
Among the standouts is "Losers In Love," in which an admitted mediocrity pines away for someone just like himself. Its conceptual twin is the baeutifully rendered "The Fine Art of Settling," a sensitive portrait of women who, out of fear or lonehness, give up their dreams and cast their lots with those same losers.
It's that insight that sets Dunbar apart from Dylan or Elvis Costello, another cynical observer of men and women. While their attitude to the opposite sex is often dismissive at best, Dunbar digs deeper. His efforts pay off handsomely on the final two numbers of the set, "She Loves Wintertime/A Sight To See" and "Betsey Johnson Dress." They're touching looks at women whose self-esteem is wrapped up in the impossible images of femininity put forth by the fashion industry, but they speak to anyone who ever felt they dIdn't measure up to another's standards.
-- Peter J. Lyden, III