Psapp ought to be precious (and not just because their “Cosy in the Rocket” gets used as the theme song for Grey’s Anatomy): they throw stuffed cats into concert audiences, make their own instruments from old toys, and have a whimsical focus on found sounds and avoidance of ordinary instruments and structures that veers towards the twee. But on The Camel’s Back, their third album, something weird happens: Psapp’s ramshackle, junkshop pop doesn’t mature so much as ripen. A complete listing of all the instruments and devices used to make Psapp’s songs would probably still make for interesting reading but the focus here is unavoidably on Galia Durant and Carim Clasmann’s compositional and melodic smarts. Any novelty provided by the fact that there’s probably a mechanical chicken used somewhere in these songs is strictly secondary.
The slinky, syncopated “I Want That” gets things off on the right foot, layering steam vents, horns and honest-to-God guitar behind an ambiguous song about the joys of possibly improper flirtation (“I like a friend, I love a foe / Why’d you think you liked it?”). “I Want That” is Psapp at their best because, from Durant’s teasing vocals on down, it melds the dozen or so disparate elements they’ve thrown together and makes them work as an impeccably hand-tooled song. It feels completely natural when the organ and other beeps come in on the middle eight or the repeated water-bubbling sounds near the end. “Part Like Waves”, meanwhile, marries their customary burbling, busy undercarriage to a conventional string arrangement lovely enough to give Durant’s lament at the fallibility of human relationships some extra heft.
Psapp is at their worst when the unusual instrumentation seems it’s the only point of the track, but here only that only happens on the the overlong instrumental “Marshrat”. Without a clearer sonic purpose or Durant’s vocals to tie the song together, it just feels like an indulgent showcase of sounds, not a song. But the title track deserves its exhaled-breaths-melodica-and-broken-music-box accompaniment to go with its brief, devastating (“you can never make up for what I lack“) tale of a totally broken relationship. In similar fashion the vaguely stompy backing of “The Monster Song” and the more conventional solo piano setting of “Screws” suit the emotional tenor of the vocals perfectly. The latter shows off another of Psapp’s most striking virtues: brevity. “Screws” is the most direct, conventional, and heartbroken song on The Camel’s Back, and it’s a gorgeous little ballad, but when Clasmann and Durant cut it off just short of three minutes it’s at precisely the moment when a weaker band would have pitched everything up into a higher register of melodrama and let the damn thing unspool for another few minutes. Instead “Screws” gracefully bows out for the brief instrumental interlude “Homicide,” a welcome and necessary refresher before the closing “Parker” ushers the album out with a backing so overtly cheery that it would be annoying were it the norm rather than the exception.
But while much of The Camel’s Back thankfully avoids that kind of sonic cheer, the best songs here traffic in a kind of joy that’s more measured and mature than Psapp’s reputation might lead you to expect. “Mister Ant”’s sunburst chorus of “I want to be a family / I want to be a home / I want to keep you in a cave / And never let you go” perfectly nails the irrational exuberance of new love over a buzzy, maximalist backing, and “Fickle Ghost” might be the best song Psapp have done to date. It’s more emotionally complicated and opaque than most of their songs, but every time Durant asks you to let her ride on your handlebars, the song exudes a soft glow.
It’s not as if Psapp’s first couple of albums were juvenilia, of course, but The Camel’s Back is so perfectly judged and crafted, so busy and disparate and yet so harmonious and consistent that it marks a definitely improvement in the duo’s work. These songs deserve more attention and love than the ‘toytronica’ tag might indicate; these intricately worked little pop songs are among the finest on offer in 2009, however they were made.