by Jon Hunt
This week, we take a look at three exceptional, piano-heavy local releases from the Golden Bubbles, Dark Dark Dark and the mighty Fire in the Northern Firs.
The Golden Bubbles, Seventy-Two
Smart, occasionally funny, piano-driven pop music arranged like a cross between the best disco song you’ve never heard and the soundtrack to your favorite television show in 1978 – I have to ask, has somebody been peeking at my Christmas list? This is great stuff, at once meaty and muscular and delightfully frothy, sporting terrific melodies like wide-collared polyester leisure suits and never afraid to get cheesy as hell which, when you’re doing stuff like this, is an essential trait – you can’t blush, you can’t pretend this is all winky-winky, you have to hit it with complete sincerity or else it turns coy. Seventy-Two never gets coy.
My favorite song is the opener, “Above The Rim,” a delightful wah-wah confection filled with Love Unlimited strings and crazy-ass horn stabs, and sporting a magnificent, surprising melody that sounds more Ben Folds than Barry White, which is kind of what makes it cool – it wraps this smart little song in disco trappings but never sounds like a tribute or a throwback (like it would if it slavishly aped R&B songwriting – this isn’t that, not at all). I also like “It’s Your Night,” a delightful piece of maximalism sporting the groove from Frankie Valli’s “December, 1963″ and a great vocal delivery that sounds halfway to jazzy (and a lyric that rhymes “faceplant” with “basement” – no small achievement).
The one downside: I’m not overly fond of the skits that punctuate every other song. It’s so hard to make the De La Soul “skit album structure” work – hell, I’m not even sure De La Soul pulled it off (really – don’t you guys hit the skip button on Three Feet High and Rising?). It always seems like maybe it was funnier in the studio when everybody was a little high/drunk than it does in your living room, and when you’re sporting danceable, propulsive disco grooves (like this whole damn album does), it just breaks stuff up in a feet-unfriendly manner.
Minor quibble, though (you can always yank ‘em from your iTunes, right?). Song-wise, performance-wise, arrangement-wise, this album is way cool – a killer pop record draped in amazing ’70s drag that never sounds forced or out of place, and somehow manages to sound like 2012 indie pop rather than something your dad used to seduce your mom (ew). A smart, solid, super-likeable listen.
Dark Dark Dark, Who Needs Who
Nona Marie Invie, the lead singer of Dark Dark Dark, isn’t depressed, per se. Melancholy, sure – the kind of melancholy you get on a crisp fall day when you’re biking around town and maybe you’ve got a head full of disappointment and vaguely broken dreams. But never, you know, suicidal. Which means she’s the kind of down that makes for lovely, fragile, moody-as-fuck chamber pop (especially if you add in a few perfectly forlorn fuzz-guitar lines and, if you’ve got ‘em, a couple shuffle beats) that never once sounds defeatist or morbid. It’s the sound of someone who lost all their money and their house and everything they own but who reassures you: we’re starting over. You know. That kind of sound. Optimistic. Melancholy but optimistic.
There are some achingly pretty damn songs on Who Needs Who, the band’s second LP (god, I was hoping the title was some kind of half-homage to AC/DC, but no such luck – Patsy Cline gets name-checked, as does Roger Miller, but not our boys from down under). I’m fond of the mysterious, cod-French-sounding “Without You,” which sports a delightfully twisty minor-key melody and a niftily spooky bassline, and I love the demented drumming on “It’s A Secret,” a dark, completely ominous piano ballad in which Invie half-whispers at you to “tell your truth.” And album closer “Meet In The Dark” is sweetly, sadly gorgeous, all cymbal-splashes and half-remembered chords, twinkling around a delicate melody that eventually turns into one of those glorious, powerful codas the Velvet Underground did so well.
There’s a certain monochromatic sameness to the sounds herein – I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but it’s certainly the only thing about the album that left me feeling ambiguously towards it. I would have loved a little more color – more horns? strings? organ? – and a little less grey, maybe; but part of that feels like it belongs here, the sad fall mood that’s more about dark, overcast skies and chilliness and a certain aching distance than bright colors and falling leaves, if that makes sense. Who Needs Who is a great album, a mood-sustainer to be sure, but filled with terrific songwriting that’s filled with delightfully forlorn melodies that’ll be the perfect tonic for those moments of nostalgia/heartbreak that surface at this point in the year.
Fire In The Northern Firs, Of Bones and Things
In some ways, Of Bones and Things sounds like it belongs in a different era, or a few of ‘em – the early ’90s, for sure, home of richly-layered, effects-laden guitar textures, and the 1970s, home of CAN and Mekkanik Krautrock beat-dropping, and the late ’60s, home of Coven and beautifully satanic-sounding female vocals. In another, though, this is a deeply modern record, wielding drones and repetition like a finely-honed rapier, sounding like a missive from another planet, all echo-drenched voices and deeply-throbbing beats. It’s right up my alley, and it’s terrific.
It’s one of those albums that just grabs you in its arms and totally envelops you. Listen to the delightfully inviting guitar sounds on “Chimera,” for example, bolstered by an awesome, propulsive bassline and some anxious, supple alto vocals. Or the almost spy-movie vibe of “Interior Design #1,” pushed along by a neatly danceable disco groove and a weird, fluttering melody line that sounds equal parts gasp and wail. Unlike a lot of shoegaze-influenced albums, this thing rocks as often as it floats, too, with tracks like “Chatrooms” and “Noche De La Bruja” constructed around heavy, forward-moving rock beats. Hypnotic, it ain’t – this is more like a fever dream.
There ain’t a lot of hooks here, but that isn’t the point. This isn’t traditional songwriting – think Eno, who once said that repetition was a kind of progress. The Krautrock guys knew that, too, and the Velvets – this is that kind of record, full of machine-like repetition and awesome noise and chilly vibes. And unlike a lotta shoegaze records, nothing outstays its welcome. Apart from one seven-minute epic, everything hovers around the three-minute mark, which means they have a limited amount of time to say an awful lot of stuff, and they do, marvelously. Of Bones and Things is a strange little odyssey, a tautly-drawn, powerful record full of great, mysterious songs.