The Ladybug Transistor
The Albemarle Sound (Merge)
The Gay Parade (Bar None)
Both bands play The Sutler 8 p.m. Apr. 18
A few years ago, they seemed to be everywheremodest, unassuming American pop bands making neatly arranged homemade recordings. There was Butterglory, Spent, and Small Factory, all of whom are now defunct or inactive. Then there was The Ladybug Transistor, who survived the flare-out and have blossomed creatively beyond their peers.
Ladybug Transistor’s third album, The Albemarle Sound, expands upon themes introduced on their earlier records. They’re still employing brass, strings, and woodwinds in ever more free-form arrangements, often with a jazzy abandon that’s rare in meticulously studio-crafted pop. They also work with the odd time signatures and affectless harmonies that fueled the post-Revolver baroque rock of the late ’60s. Lyrically, bandleader Gary Olson is as obsessed with aimless summer days in the great outdoors as you might expect from a New York City boy. Tracks like “Meadowport Arch” and “The Swimmer” seem designed not just to give listeners a summery feeling, but to transport them to a carefree earlier era, as imagined by classic TV and Top 40 radio.
There are dangers in staking out such a retro position. Recreating the music of the past isn’t exactly the way to blaze new trails. Ladybug Transistor earn a break, though, because they’re not simply making soullessly precise models of ’60s pop tunes by Petula Clark and The Association. Neither is their sound a kitschy joke, nor is it used for darkly ironic effect. They crawl inside this music and illumine it from within, pointing out lively new high spots and elevating potentially watery ideas into something like art.
The song “Six Times,” for example, shuffles shimmering piano, melancholy horns, and brief, elastic guitar licks as though each were a puzzle piece. Then, once all the elements fall into place, the song wraps up with a trumpet solo, breaking the tension of the nifty arrangement in a gust of heartfelt improvisation. Here and elsewhere on The Albemarle Sound, especially on the stirring instrumentals “The Great British Spring” and “Cienfuegos,” Ladybug Transistor redevelop the conceits that largely fell off the charts 30 years ago, after Woodstock. And they do so with gusto, despite intentionally passionless, almost Teutonic vocals. The only real knock against their exploratory reconstructions is that they haven’t yet produced a song as direct and transcendent as The Young Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure?” or The Fifth Dimension’s version of “Stoned Soul Picnic”but it’s not for lack of ability.
The rash of living-room symphonies from the mid-’90s tended to be short a key ingredient. Call it a spark of genius, or a certain charisma; the bottom line was that the standard-bearers for the comfy-pop “movement” (if it could be called that) were too low-key and not quite accomplished enough. With The Albemarle Sound, Ladybug Transistor are no longer playing at pop craftsmanship. They deserve to be heard alongside modern innovators like Air, High Llamas, The Cardigans, and The Sea and Cake. They’re now playing in a bigger league.
A more ramshackle but just as legitimate pop philosophy has been espoused by the much discussed Elephant 6 recording collective. Athens band Of Montreal are part of the second wave of musicians to join the Elephant 6 party; along with The Music Tapes and Elf Power, they’ve bought into the DIY psychedelia and community spirit of Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control. But Of Montreal have more in common with Elephant 6’s most brilliant light, Neutral Milk Hotel, in that both are fronted by deliriously crackpot personalities.
Of Montreal’s top hat is worn by Kevin Barnes, whose sensibility is best summed up by a song on the band’s debut album, Cherry Peel: “Tim, I Wish You Were Born a Girl” (so that he could kiss his best friend, of course). The Gay Parade, Of Montreal’s second full-length album (there’s an EP between the long-players), is a series of story songs set to bouncy piano and folk guitar; it’s like a slightly skewed dance-hall revue, or 17 variations on The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”
Most of the stories are about eccentric characters like the “Fun Loving Nun,” or “The Miniature Philosopher,” but there are also sketches of more mundane folks, like shy volunteer fireman “Jacques Lemure,” or the wistfully sentimental “Autobiographical Grandpa.” Then there are the wild tall tales like “Nickee Coco and the Invisible Tree,” or novelties like “The Gay Parade Outro,” wherein Of Montreal thank us for listening to the record, and invite us to listen again whenever we want to visit their wonderland. Barnes claims his primary influence is The Kinks, but his kidshow-host instincts betray a touch of Tom T. Hall and The Bugaloos.
For all the jolliness, it might behoove Barnes to reconsider plugging in too fully to the Elephant 6 aesthetic. Like Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Barnes is a vivid lyricist, and he makes poignant observations in songs like “Neat Little Domestic Life” (with its joyful routines) or “My Favorite Boxer” (who turns out to be very rude, though still admirable). He doesn’t need to invite 40 friends into the studio to shout the choruses, blow into kazoos, or bang on furniture. Someone who can write songs this good should either refine his sound (à la Ladybug Transistor), or just drop all affectations and play on. We’ll still listen.
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