Jonathan Bree’s explanation of why he plays pop music is bare-bones simple: “Everyone likes it. It’s popular.”
Such reasoning is emblematic of the songcraft the singer-guitarist practices with partner Heather Mansfield in The Brunettes. It’s also a bit deceiving. While the indie-pop tunes concocted by the New Zealand duo on their new “Structures & Cosmetics” CD are whimsical and engaging, they also are carefully assembled, with a sound that is both space-age retro and thoroughly modern.
For example, “Her Hairagami Set,” a dreamy, low-key piano- and synth-dominated track extolling a woman who knows her “hair architecture,” has lyrics that “came from the adverts on the telly for hairagami sets,” says Bree, who is en route from Boston to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (For the uninitiated, hairagami is a styling accessory created by Barbara Carey, who applied the concept of Japanese origami, or folding paper, to hair in creating the tool.)
The even more ethereal “Credit Card Mail Order” concisely puts across the importance of love, despite the hard knocks that vulnerability invites and the temptation to fill the void with material goods. Pop aficionados will notice nods to both the Beach Boys and Tommy James, two artists, says Bree, that he and Mansfield “really like.”
(During the interview Bree also mentions The Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers as “great bands,” saying he discovered them as a 9-year-old listening to his parents’ record collection.)
The hypnotic “Wall Poster Star,” which Bree says he wrote when he was 15 or 16, traces the shedding of contrived images of manhood and giving over his heart to another, while the lovely, full of longing “Small Town Crew” is about house-sitting in Los Angeles. “A while back, we kind of took a break for a few months,” says Bree. “It was a really a great time (house sitting). But I wanted my (now ex-) girlfriend to be with me, you see, and that’s the rest of the song.”
Lighter fare includes “Obligatory Road Song” and “If You Were Alien.” The former is a clever collage of things encountered on tour, including “medicated men,” which Bree says is an allusion to truckers. “In one instant, either traveling with The Shins or Rilo Kiley, we were held up on the freeway. A truck driver had fallen asleep at the wheel,” he explains.
The latter, which Bree calls “an interplanetary love song,” was written for a TV pilot that never got picked up.
Bree and Mansfield have been working together since 1998 - early on, they were boyfriend and girlfriend for about a year. And though they have made three previous trips to the U.S., this is the first tour as headliner.
“This tour takes us into places we’ve never been before, and in the places where we have been before, like Chicago, the crowds are coming out,” says Bree.
On this tour Bree and Mansfield, whose sings in a pretty coo and plays clarinet, glockenspiel, harmonica and keyboards, will be backed by four other musicians dubbed the Lil’ Chief Orchestra. They provide bass, percussion, synth, trumpet and tenor sax.
Most of the set will be drawn from “Structures & Cosmetics,” although Bree and Mansfield may include a selection of two from 2002’s “Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks” and 2004’s “Mars Loves Venus” and cover versions of Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Talking Heads’ “And She Was” and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Runnin’ Away.”
Asked why The Brunettes chose those three songs to cover, Bree, of course, keeps it simple: “They’re good songs, fun tunes.”