A Tiny Replica of the Beach Boys
Denmark’s Figurines has ridden ups and downs since its formation in the mid-1990s. Their breakthrough album, if you can call 2005’s sophomore release Skeleton that, was critically lauded by the likes of Pitchfork, Allmusic.com, and even Rolling Stone, which gushed that the album sounded like “Franz Ferdinand but much closer to a first-album Strokes with Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue yelping at the helm.” OK. Not sure that the band sounds like Franz Ferdinand, but whatever. Then the 2007 follow-up, When the Deer Wore Blue, more or less failed to capture the critical fawning of the predecessor, and the band also saw a couple of members leave in the intervening years like rats deserting a sinking ship.
Now down to a trio, the band has unleashed a self-titled album, suggesting a bit of a change of direction, and one that can be aptly described as a bit of a “grower” that takes awhile to adjust to, though there’s very little scattered throughout the record that really rewards you for taking the time you spend with it. There’s nothing that stands out or smacks you on the side of the head like “Race You”, “The Wonder”, or “Release Me on the Floor” from Skeleton. It’s more an album that explores Beach Boys-esque melodies, though it should be noted that Figurines’ frontman Christian Hjelm still sounds like a mutant cross between Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, the two singers that he’s often compared to.
The album’s first song just happens to be the best and most affecting. “Hanging from Above” starts out sparsely, just Hjelm’s singing amidst rolling drums, but it quickly develops into a haunting, stirring chorus that lodges itself into your ear and doesn’t let go. The song is sweetened with keyboards that sound like strings during its solo section, adding a nice baroque touch. It’s a good encapsulation of what you can do with three minutes and 30 seconds in the best indie rock tradition. But from there, things get slightly dodgier. “The Great Unknown” has a rollicking surf guitar intro, nicked from early Beach Boys, but redoes the trick outlined in “Hanging from Above” by having Hjelm singing against drums in the verses. It’s a jaunty track, and it sort of grows on you, but it isn’t outstanding. It merely sounds like a band acting on auto-pilot for the most part.
Meanwhile, “New Colors” has a slightly retro ‘60s Britpop atmosphere with its harpsichord-like keyboards, coupled with a funky beat, but it doesn’t sound moving until the minor-key chorus. It just kind of washes over you, and languishes like an idea that sounds potentially great on paper, but somehow doesn’t get fully executed properly. What’s more, it just peters out and ends with no great flourish. Another nod into Beach Boys territory comes with “Free Today”, which apes the harmonies of said band, and in the rendering recalls another contemporary American Pacific Northwest band, Fleet Foxes, in Hjelm’s vocal delivery—at least, a little bit—showing that he’s trying to add Robin Pecknold to his list of American indie rock influences.
From there, the results are a little ropey. “We Got Away” is another attempt to capture Brian Wilson’s genius in a bottle, but the result is a plodding ballad that just stagnates and has no sense of momentum, with the drum parts relegated to being little more than a click track. Next, “Every Week” nicks the keyboard line from “Good Vibrations”, though it tries to sweeten things up in the chorus with a shimmering toy xylophone. Still, it sounds too close to the influential Beach Boys song to really establish its own identity. “Poughkeepsie” suffers from verses that just feel stifling, and only really opens up and sounds expansive during the chorus—but, once again, it just sounds like something from the Pet Sounds-era songbook rather than a song that really takes on a life of its own.
“Lucky to Love”, on the other hand, harkens back to the decidedly more straight-up indie-rock sonics of Skeleton, and it’s a bit of a shake-up. There’s even a countrified banjo that struggles to be heard, and it’s too bad that the band didn’t decide to explore this direction further, because “Lucky to Love” is among the stronger cuts to be found on Figurines. It’s made all the more startling in that the song which follows it is another ballad, albeit a gloomy acoustically strummed one, in the form of “Call Your Name”. The best thing that can be said about this track is that it’s the shortest thing on the record, clocking in at two-and-a-half-minutes-and-change. Final song “Unable to Drift” is an Elton John-like ballad, which would be the first time that the band references something other than the Pacific Northwest and the brothers Wilson on Figurines. It’s a brisk, merry track, but it’s a rather mediocre end to an otherwise mediocre album, because it’s just a sound-a-like as opposed to something up-on which Figurines have put an indelible stamp of their own.
All in all, if you’re new to Figurines and want to check them out, I would gently nudge you in the direction of Skeleton, as that remains a great distillation of European indie rock done in the best tradition of American bands like Pavement, Built to Spill, and Modest Mouse. If you already have that record, and are looking to expand to your collection, Figurines is a generally just-OK set that’s worthy of checking out for “Hanging from Above”, “Lucky to Love”, and bits and pieces of a few other cuts from there.
The problem with Figurines is that, in aping the same textures as mid-‘60s Beach Boys songs in conjunction with the sounds of Figurine’s more modern American peers, it comes across as though the band is using certain templates as tracing paper. This is not the sound of a band trying to branch out and try something different, per se. Figurines winds up sounding like stuff you’ve heard elsewhere, and done a whole lot better. The effort largely comes off as sounding laboured and forced, and there’s nothing quite as hooky as anything to be found on Skeleton. That makes Figurines a bit of a disappointment. There are bits and pieces of song craft that are touching, but, as a whole, the whole album just kind of sits there and never really coheres into something remarkable.
I fear that Figurines risk being an also-ran, and I get the sense that this could very well be their final album if their fortunes don’t improve given their inner-band stability of late. That’s too bad, because Figurines have proven they can craft catchy indie pop songs in the past. However, Figurines references a copycat-like ability to try and sound like artists that have come before them, rather than an attempt to forge a true style. It represents the sound of a band that really needs to go back to the drawing board and figure out what make their concoction of grooves, at least on Skeleton, so startling in the first place.
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// Notes from the Road
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