This completely passed me by, but the Postmarks were offering up these humble but charming cover songs at a rate of one per month for the whole of 2008. They were originally free downloads through eMusic, a sort of less ambitious version of Bishop Allen’s EP-per-month from last year. So, yes, the gimmick is that each song is chosen because it features prominently the number of the month in which it was released – hence, By-the-Numbers. There’s “One Note Samba”, “You Only Live Twice”, “Three Little Birds”, and so on. But that quirky selection process is easily smoothed out by the Postmarks’ lush, confluent renditions of the disparate source material.
The Postmarks’ self-titled debut may have been a little texturally homogenous, but it also held a few exquisite chamber-pop moments. Vocalist Tim Yehezkely kept her voice less-is-more, a tactic which, combined with the hazy atmospheric thrall of the guitars and synths, approached Beach House’s barbiturate haze. Where that Baltimore duo catapulted over almost Baroque drone and electronic harpsichord, the Postmarks always hewed closer to Nico-style dream pop. Yehezkely’s childlike voice falls off notes, hardly touches them, but then builds to an affecting renditions of her choruses. The group has expanded since the debut from a trio to a five-piece, which really just represents a full-time consolidation into the band of musicians who performed on the debut. Even so, the group’s muted dynamic range occasionally made you wish for just a few moments of abandon.
Not much of a surprise, the atmosphere is mostly the same on By-the-Numbers. Surprisingly, this leads to some revelation. Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is completely transformed – thankfully, no reggae in sight – into a quiet and beautiful narco-ballad. A cello plays out an echoing countermelody, and as Yehezkely whispers, “Every little thing is gonna be alright”, you’ll want to believe. “7-11”, the classic Ramones track, pepped up with maracas, string accents and a wide-open midrange, becomes something entirely new. It’s The Hills in music: glittering fake innocence done up in brilliant high-definition. And Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” drains the original’s James Bond schmaltz. It becomes a widescreen, deserted-pier relic.
The group make a few attempts at brisker tempi, (slightly) more forceful drums and more forthright arrangements. Covers of Ride and Richard Rodgers both utilize this more upbeat sound. But these mostly buckle under Yehezkely’s soothing voice. Surprisingly, this doesn’t undermine the songs themselves, but brings to them a comforting, relaxed familiarity. Of course, not all the choices are equally successful. We could do without a lounge-pop version of Blondie’s “11:59”. And, however soothing, Tim Yehezkely ain’t no Seu Jorge; “Five Years” is charming, but little more.
In the same way Cat Power creates and sustains a single feeling over the length of a covers album, the Postmarks have built a LP’s worth of surprisingly coherent recontextualisations. The songs are more familiar than Cat Power’s. If you’re not always singing along to these easy, undisputable classics, at least you’ll recognize them with pleasure. What is more, the Postmarks’ own interpretations are an additional, luxuriating delight.