[2 April 2012]
To say Oxnard, California’s Sea Lions know the value of brevity would be an understatement. Their debut album contains 15 songs in just over 29 minutes, and not a single track tops the three-minute mark. Singer/songwriter Adrian Pillado has filled this record with easygoing classic pop songs that wouldn’t feel out of place on a compilation of forgotten pop/rock bands of the ‘60s. This isn’t exactly a fresh idea; bands have been appropriating the styles of the ‘60s ever since that decade ended. But Sea Lions seem unusually committed to the idea. The album cover is a photo of the band dressed in ultra-square clothes, as if their parents insisted that they dress nice for the picture. It even includes the word “Stereo” in the upper right corner. The tinny, treble-heavy production also attempts to replicate the sound and feel of records from the time. Not the records from the big-time bands who could afford to spend months in the studio tweaking the sound, but the ones who had a limited time and budget and who had to deal with whatever engineers worked in the studio.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sea Lions But Were Afraid to Ask comes close to working as an effective homage to that time period, but a couple of things hold it back. Chief among the record’s faults is Pillado’s role as the band’s singer. His baritone voice isn’t particularly expressive, and everything comes out sounding sort of monotone. But he’s not a bad vocalist, either. Everything he sings is in tune, at least. The problem is that the treble-focused production leaves the vocals buried deep in the mix. If guitars or keyboards handled big chunks of the melody (or even had recognizable, catchy riffs) in the band’s songs, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. But this is ‘60s-style pop we’re talking about. The vocals are where all of the melody is, on every single song (excepting the album’s three instrumentals). The singing should be right out front. Instead, listeners have to strain to hear Pillado’s voice underneath the jangling guitar chords and Katie Chavez’s tambourine. Oh yes, this band has a full-time tambourine player. Even worse, Pillado handled production duties on the album himself. Other than, “I didn’t know what I was doing in a recording studio”, he has no excuse for hamstringing the mix of the album like this, so we have to assume this is the way he wanted it to sound.
As for the songs themselves, they’re mostly pretty good. The band is full of competent musicians that handle the high-speed, slightly surf-influenced songs as well as the slower ballads. Lead guitarist Matthew Urango stands out as particularly skilled at this style, with clear, crisp playing. Pillado’s lyrics tend to be simplistic love songs, but that’s in keeping with the band’s theme. The standouts are the tracks that deviate slightly from this pattern, like the musically catchy “Grown Up.” This song finds Pillado reminiscing about being a kid and wanting to be an adult, and being a depressed adult wanting to be a child again. The mid-tempo “I Don’t Wanna Go Out” has something resembling a guitar lead, and well-placed background elements like “Ooo”-ing backing vocals and clicking clavés. The closer, “A Song For Your Smile”, is an instrumental that hints at what the album could’ve been like without any vocals at all. Urango handles all of the melody on lead guitar and the result is an upbeat, catchy surf-rock song.
While there are elements to recommend on this album, the baffling decision to bury the vocals casts a pall over everything. The songs feel almost incomplete with the heart of the music so deep in the mix. In a different setting like a live show, it’s possible that these songs come alive with the sound balanced more appropriately. But as a record, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sea Lions But Were Afraid to Ask feels more like a home demo that needs considerable polishing than a proper debut album.