You know you’ve probably made it as a band once the TV networks start paying attention. For the husband and wife duo of Jason and Julie Shields that forms the nucleus behind the Capsules, that recognition came from a seemingly unusual place: Steven Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, asked them to write a song for the show. Since then, the band – which is actually a trio with drummer Kevin Trevino as the third wheel – has been on a roll, with their work appearing on the PBS television show Roadtrip Nation and in several video games, including Borderlands 2. So the Capsules are hardly living in a pineapple under the sea these days, though they certainly are an indie, underground band, and a rather quirky one at that. With their fourth album, Northern Lights & Southern Skies, could the band’s luck improve in spades? After listening to this a number of times, I have to say that I’m doubtful. For one, Julie Shields’ singing is quite the acquired taste: Sounding like a cross between the Go-Gos’ Belinda Carlisle and the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, Shields is either going to charm you or annoy you greatly. And perhaps she might do it at the same time. Listening to this, you may have the impetus to want to reach into your speaker cones and rub her cheeks, because her voice comes across as so cloyingly cute. So, yes, your appreciation (or lack thereof) will largely rest on what you think of her voice and range.
However, the main problem is that Northern Lights & Southern Skies is rather lackadaisical as a record, and only boasts a handful of standout tracks. The whole thing with its icy and yet peppy synth washes, comes across as a less shiny version of Shiny Toy Guns, who, at least on their latest record, III, were apt to try different things from time to time (even if that group sometimes branched out to tinker with the formula only to experience just varying degrees of success). But there’s another noteworthy influence. It’s very clear after hearing this album that the Capsules have the xx’s catalogue in their collection and studied it relentlessly. So we get a few glacial pop songs with those Cure-esque guitar lines and languid synths. Which might work if you’re British, because, hey, it’s cold and gloomy in Britain – maybe less so in America, where the Capsules call home (Kansas, to be exact). Ultimately, the Capsules want it both ways: They want to be ethereal and spacey, but they also want to be a straight-ahead electro-pop band (and a pretty wholesome one at that) at the same time. Planting both feet in different places can present an awkward pose, and that’s what you get with Northern Lights & Southern Skies, a 38-minute, 10 song long player that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. It aims for the dancefloor, but it also aims for the bedroom. Sometimes at the exact precise moment. So if there’s anything you could say about this record, it’s kind of confused.
What’s more, the songs generally aren’t there with a few exceptions. This is just merely dressed up pop that sounds like it has more of a place in a car commercial than a TV show (or video game). Still, let’s talk about the record’s good points, because, even though some of this comes across as overly mawkish mainstream indie pop, there are some highs. The album’s clear purple patch moment is a punchy little number called “Time Will Only Tell”, which I’m rather shocked wasn’t considered for the record’s promotional track on the Web. If Blondie walked across the same path the Cure was meandering down, the result would be “Time Will Only Tell”. It’s a clear cut that has dance floor ambitions, and it’s the one moment on the album where Julie Shields’ vocals pierce through the clatter with laser-beam precision. It’s just a great pop song, and its position in the LP’s mid-section offers quite a bit of a respite from what precedes and follows it. And “Magnetic Fields”, which closes the album, is a iceberg-like slow-dance number that is somewhat memorable in an alternately rather cartoonish and maudlin way. And “With Signs Repeating” is kind of a catchy, glitchy pop number. Aside from that, you can pretty much take or leave Northern Lights & Southern Skies. Songs like “Across the Sky” and “Our Apocalypse” are ditties that are so overbearingly twee-pop, even though the latter has a bit of menace, they sound like rejects from a Madonna record. They just all hang there in the ether, and do not really move or affect you in any way.
“I’ve been thinking about this one”, croons Julie on “From the Start”, but it’s clear that the band really wasn’t. Northern Lights & Southern Skies feels like a selection of material that the group threw against the wall to see what would stick. Problem is, not much does. The songs are tied together in a muddled mess that leaves next to zero impact, and everything begins to sound very much like everything else after awhile. Marry to that a lead singer who comes across as a bit wearying if you take her in large doses, and Houston, you’ve got a real problem. Maybe your six-year-old niece might like this, but I’m doubtful she’s going to remember the band as one who anonymously showed up on one of her favourite children’s shows, which, if it’s still on TV at all, is in reruns and perpetual repeats. Northern Lights & Southern Skies simply overreaches and exceeds its grasp, and just sounds like a mish-mash of different groups who clearly have more ambition and grandiosity than this band does. At the end of the day, all that probably needs to be said is that SpongeBob went home and cried. Why? His favourite band just turned in a rather uninspired, to put it mildly, disc.