It should be noted that in the lull between Stepdad’s mid-2011 re-release of the very excellent Ordinaire EP and early 2012, they signed to Black Bell, an obscure wing of an obscure subsidiary of Warner Brothers. Stepdad is now a major label band, technically speaking, and their new album, Wildlife Pop, is a major label album, though you wouldn’t know it by comparing efforts. The heart and soul of Ordinaire EP, what made it a blissful combination of 8-bit bleeps and bloops and engaging, heartfelt lyricism, is alive and well in Wildlife Pop. There is a bigger sound, to be sure, but one that plays just as naturally and comfortably as the relatively subdued production on Ordinaire EP.
Also notably, Wildlife Pop may very well have the best opening track of the year, “Must Land Running”, a cacophonous blast of synths and banging piano which feels as big and utterly joyful as the greatest of Polyphonic Spree tracks. “Must Land Running” leads into “Jungles”, one of two recycled tracks from Ordinaire EP, which fits in well here. Having brought out this song on two consecutive releases, it is especially amazing that they can still make a line as mundane as “we belong to places” sound revelatory.
The following several tracks follow suit, injecting an even greater influence of ‘80s synthpop, the most zany among them sounding like Danny Elfman composing chiptune, lead singer ultramark’s voice hitting the high notes as capably as Justin Hawkins of the Darkness and sounding not unlike Brian Wilson in the lower register. What separates Stepdad from the pack is that a band of this caliber musically still takes the time to write great lines like “My incantations sound like a campaign speech/My trepidations pound throughout my strained reach.” There is subtlety in the vocals amid the sugary bombast of music, rendering Wildlife Pop an album made, somehow, both for headphones and magical dreamland amphitheaters where unicorns take the place of performers and woodland creatures dance merrily to the beat.
The magic falters slightly toward the end, with songs that dip occasionally into the repetitive or overly precious, but ending on “Warrior (Jungles part 2)” provides the perfect high note to end on. It has been a number of years since a band’s first two offerings were as excellent as Stepdad’s.
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