Fred Thomas is as elusive a bandleader as his band, Saturday Looks Good to Me, is an unpredictable band. The group made a series of gauzy pop records before making 2007’s Fill Up the Room, a big, airtight power-pop record that jumped genres while upping the studio quality to brilliant effect. It wasn’t an extension of what came before, since everything the band does feels like a total jump away from what came before, but it did feel like an ending—even Thomas thought so—for the band.
So One Kiss Ends It All is a surprise in all kinds of ways. First of all, that it exists at all is amazing. But, perhaps more importantly, it once again divorces itself from past records, making the set feel both like a warm return and a new sound from an entirely new band. Part of this may come from the fact that Thomas doesn’t sing many of the songs he wrote for this album. He’s been plenty busy since Fill Up the Room, making his own solid solo records, so whether he was frontmanned-out or felt like injecting his songs with a new feel, he recruited singers Carol Catherine and Amber Fellows to cover a lot of the vocal duties here. On top of that, he also called in the band’s former singer, Betty Barnes, to sing a couple of tracks here.
This changing of voices—though all are uniformly sweet and warm, the perfect group of singers for these irrepressibly lovelorn tunes—sometimes makes Saturday Looks Good to Me sound less like a band than a group of musicians that reshapes and reforms for every song, giving us a new version of their summer pop sound. “Invisible Friend”, with its piano riffs and chimes, is bright and hazy, the perfect kind of brisk pop tune that will hook you into a record, while “Empty Beach” follows it with an overcast tangle of guitars and more layered vocals. It’s got a similar isolation to the first song, though the “empty world” the speaker is standing in feels much more stark here, with those buzzed guitars ringing in the background.
The album moves between degrees of warmth and coolness. Some songs slowly heat up, only to be tempered by the soft breeze of the next track. “Break In” is a charged up rock song, the kind of tune that might seem rote if it weren’t for the awesome horn section and flawless singing. It leads into the much more frigid (and fitting) sway of “Polar Bear”. This back and forth over the record keeps things fresh, and hints at the momentary shifts in mood in these songs, the moments where people feel totally at home one moment only to feel utterly alone the next. “Nobody actually wants to be happy, they just want to be heard,” Thomas penned on “Sunglasses”, which is curiously the most overt mix of warm guitars and chilly space, and that mixing of tones hints at the flawed logic at play here, a logic the album exposes. This is not only a search of happiness—it’s also a recognition of happiness’s limitations, that you—no matter how much you find yourself—will still have to confront yourself from time to time.
This is a curious theme for a guy who doesn’t sing his own words on most of the record, but one also sold most convincingly on the expansive, odd closer “Space Children”, which confuses voices and instruments without ever quite finding the groove of the rest of the record. It’s the biggest risk here, but works better than other moments that feel too safe, too, in the band’s wheelhouse. “New City” is catchy enough, but maybe too easily built, perhaps that’s why the band tries to scrape out the last chorus, letting the song fall apart into tape fuzz for a second before getting you back into its uniform shine. Other moments, like the strange opening of “The Ever Present New Times Condition”, nod to earlier, fuzzier times for the band, while “Negative Space” under-uses Betty Barnes, who seems to be taking a breezy victory lap through the song.
Both moves—the seemingly experimental sound blips and the safer pop songs here—turn away from the propulsion of the rest of this great record, which pushes Saturday Looks Good to Me into brilliant new territory. The songs are as hook-laden as anything you’ll play on a loop this summer, but the best ones don’t give it all away up front. Their laid-back surfaces peel away to reveal more complicated structures and emotions underneath. The songs are deceptively complex, and Thomas—as the man behind the curtain here—ends up revealing as much about himself when he doesn’t sing a word as he has on all his solid solo work since Fill Up the Room. This isn’t an album that tops its predecessor, because it really has no true predecessor. One Kiss Ends It All succeeds on its own terms and, despite the finality of its title, it feels open-ended, like it could lead to anything.