When Miniature Tigers first started putting out music in 2008, singer/guitarist Charlie Brand was writing catchy indie-pop songs with nerdy lyrical concepts involving things like octopi, injuries from dinosaur bites, and the travails of dating a cannibal. 2010’s F O R T R E S S featured an added emphasis on synths, but its best tracks, like “Rock and Roll Mountain Troll”, still conflated everyday relationship issues with weird lyrical ideas set to super-catchy indie-pop. Brand and the rest of the band swung for the fences on ‘12’s Mia Pharoah, dropping a lot of their lyrical idiosyncrasies and taking sonic cues from current hitmakers like Katy Perry to try to break out. It didn’t really work for them on the charts, and so Brand has course-corrected. “Let’s just try to be as much of us as possible”, Cruel Runnings’ press release quotes him as saying.
The result is that Cruel Runnings is pretty much a pure pop-rock album, drawing mostly from ‘70s rock and ‘80s synth-pop but relying on Brand’s ear for melodic hooks. The fact that the band recorded the album in Jamaica seems to have influenced nothing on the record save for the weak pun of a title. Uptempo songs like first single “Swimming Pool Blues” sit right next to slower, dancier tracks like “Used to Be the Shit”. Some of this works exceedingly well. Other times, not so much.
The album’s highlights are instant sing alongs. “Oblivious” rides its verses on a catchy, repetitive synth bass sound and simplistic drum machine beats. But the pre-chorus pushes the drums and melody to the fore before bursting into a great, quick refrain that slides right back into a more energetic second verse. “Better Apart” piles on the synth hooks as Brand sings about a crumbling on and off relationship. In the joyful, harmony-filled chorus he concludes that they “Can’t make it together / We’re better apart.”
Other songs on Cruel Runnings don’t work quite as well as that. “Dream Girl” mimics late ‘80s/early ‘90s R&B a little too well, from the twinkling synths to the sub-disco rhythm guitar. Because it’s such a perfect imitation of that style, though, the song relies on the vocalist to really sell it. Brand, while just fine for power-pop material, doesn’t have the charisma or the voice to pull this off successfully. Tracks like “Sadistic Kisses” and “I Can’t Stop” are fine ‘80s-inflected synth-pop, but don’t quite have the hooks to make them stick with you.
What this album is really missing, though, is that sense of lyrical specificity that dominated Miniature Tigers’ early material. Sure, songs like “Tell It to the Volcano” and “Japanese Woman Living in My Closet” were deeply weird and very nerdy, but they gave the band a unique point of view. Cruel Runnings (and much of Mia Pharoah before it) has largely abandoned that weird point of view for much more traditional relationship-focused lyrics. Sonically, “Swimming Pool Blues” and its prominent acoustic guitar line could fit right in with the band’s early material. But the lyrical focus on nostalgic teenage summers make the song nearly indistinguishable from a Fountains of Wayne track. In fact, the only thing that differentiates Cruel Runnings-era Miniature Tigers and Fountains of Wayne is the Tigers’ heavier reliance on synths and a noticeable lack of the wry humor that is a Fountains of Wayne hallmark.
The sad thing is, Brand used to have a sense of humor as well. It went part and parcel with his oddball lyrical subjects. But bringing his songs into the realm of the mundane real word seems to have taken most of his wit as well. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing good here. The handful of great songs on Cruel Runnings are still joyful, catchy earworms. Now they’re just the same type of joyful, catchy earworms as many of their peers in the power- and synth-pop genres. After four albums, it seems like Miniature Tigers are heading towards the crowd and away from the niche they carved for themselves early on.