It’s nearly summer, which means that it’s time for optimistic, jaunty music. Teenager‘s bright, melodic San Francisco pop is just the thing to help you shake those wintry blues. (And goodness knows there were enough of them in this long winter.) The Magic of True Love has everything you need in a summer album: relaxed vibe, warm moods, driving songs, wistful ballads, and lyrics for young lovers.
It’s tough to nail the relaxed/energetic balance, but Teenager gets it just right here. There are fast songs and slow songs in good amounts, but it’s the mid-tempo tunes that shine brightest. In that most difficult of tempos, striking arrangements, brash vocal melodies, and careful songwriting keep me glued to the sound.
Songwriter Bevan Herbekian draws from a vast amount of influences to enact this deft pop dance. Queen could have written the vocal arrangements in the 6-minute highlight “Black is Back.” Subtle Beatles touches color the arrangements throughout. The punctilious piano rhythms and swirling psychedelia-lite of The Morning Benders/POP ETC come to mind in “Broke” (which Independent Clauses was proud to debut). The Beach Boys’ distinct background vocal style appears in the title track. There’s some Paul Simon hiding in “Two Timing Machines”–and that one starts out with the lyric “One is a lonely number.” (What up, Three Dog Night?!)
Even with all these references to other sounds, The Magic of True Love avoids becoming just a giant pastiche by providing memorable melodies and lyrics. “Broke” is relatable to anyone who’s been young and poor and in love, while “A Believer (40 Days & 40 Nights)” hits a similar audience by starting off with “Hung over in our Sunday’s best / there’s nothing like a smile from a friend.” The title itself is a banner that very aptly spreads over all the tunes: even if you don’t hear all the lyrics, the vibe is very much one of romance and optimism.
Still, it’s not all chipper popcraft here: “Sunday Afternoon” is a falsetto-heavy, lounge-ready piano ballad, while the title track itself is a wistful acoustic guitar-led ode to the fact that the lovers we break up with slowly become strangers again. In fact, that is the “magic” of true love: “I turn strangers to friends into lovers/ and then back again/ta-da.” Oof. I won’t spoil anymore of the lyrics, but there are some sharp turns of phrase in this tune.
But even in its wistful low point, it still doesn’t give over to unescapable sadness. This is a diverse, freewheeling album that has a large number of points to check out. If you’re a fan of traditional pop songwriting, not just the forefathers but stuff like comes out on Merge Records, you’ll be all up in The Magic of True Love. Put it on the car stereo and drive with your lover in the other seat; it’s a perfect soundtrack.
I love it when a specific scene has an identifiable sound. Sometimes I don’t like the specific sound that is happening, but I love the idea that people kicking around ideas among themselves over a long period of time will come up with iterations, similarities and variations that push toward the sum. And there almost always is a sum, even if it’s something seemingly unquantifiable like an artistic movement: the pinnacle of a form does not appear on the first try, by anyone. Rockin’ the Suburbs was nowhere near the first piano-pop album, nor Ben Folds’ first rodeo; it just happens to have assimilated all the ideas that had been kicking about in a particularly excellent way.
All that to say this: the lush orchestrations, wide-eyed lyrics, group vocals and bohemian charm make The City by The 21st Century sound very much like a Pacific Northwest indie pop band (The Morning Benders/Pop Etc, Grizzly Bear, Local Natives – although they’re from LA). And instead of that being a bad thing, it’s a great thing. “We Are Waiters” has familiar elements like plunking piano and big group vocals, but they invite the listener in so the band can drop the intoxicating chorus. I had the chorus on loop in my mind for days after I heard it the first time, and that’s incredibly rare for a guy who listens to music all day.
The band makes its living on gleeful tunes that incorporate guitar noodling, horns, organ solos and a well-developed sense of space. These songs may have a lot going on, but they’re not crowded: the production allows for everything to breathe. “The Good Things (Act I and II)” is the best example of this, as the band throws the kitchen sink at the tune and it still doesn’t feel as heavy as a power-pop trio with a huge guitar riff. “A Funeral March (The State of Our Parade)” is another melodic highlight, filled out with lyrics about the meaning of life (no, for real). “The Parisian Translation” gets its Decemberists on in the melodic structures, but not so much that it feels like a rip-off. It’s just incredibly fun. (And yes, there’s French spoken in the song!)
So where does the line draw between inhabiting a sound and retreading a sound? I think the difference lies in each person’s desire for the genre, just like I mentioned yesterday: The 21st Century’s game is the same as Friends of Mine. (This style of indie-pop is just as divisive as country, and I would guess mostly for the same reasons: two parts backlash to its related culture, one part resistance to the idiosyncrasies of the sound). The 21st Century takes an established sound and builds something inside it; those with a low threshold for the genre’s quirks won’t get this and feel that it’s just some more of that stuff, while those who love the genre will enjoy the new entrant into the field.
Given that ideas ruminate and kick around, the entry of another band into the field allows for another possible group who could come up with the definitive statement (or statements!) for this genre. If you’re a fan of the type of music that The Morning Benders purveyed on Big Echo, this one’s going to make you sit up and take notice.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.