To these ears, long-running Detroit foursome Outrageous Cherry reached their pop-psych apex with 2005’s Our Love Will Change The World, a beauty of a record anchored by ringleader Matthew Smith’s garage sensibility and wordplay-meets-Petula Clark’s horn-section stunner, “What Makes A Pretty Girl Go Insane?”. If you don’t have the record yet, go stimulate the economy and buy a copy or six. The band retreated on 2007’s Stay Happy that dialed back the fun quotient and stripped down the flourishes of Our Love…, and presented a fork in the road for the band: which version of the band would show up for their latest, Universal Malcontents? It’s the latter. Sigh. Smith’s facility with album and song titles remains on Universal Malcontents, and while he takes the titular notion in several different intriguing directions – escapism, cynicism, get-the-hell-off-my-lawnism – too much of the record hews to the middle of the interstellar highway.
Malcontents is a stripped down record – a little T. Rex boogie here (namely, opener “I Recognized Her”), a few swirling keyboards there – but by and large, the band (singer/keyboardist Smith, bassist Sean Ellwood, guitarist Larry Ray and drummer Samantha Linn) don’t embrace the horns and other supersized touches that made Smith’s personal-is-universal lyrics as big-sounding as they deserve to be. As a result, something’s missing: like the Be Sharps, song titles like “It’s Not Rock and Rock Roll (And I Don’t Like It)” and “I Wouldn’t Treat My Enemies The Way You Treat Yourself” are witty at first, but seem less funny each time you hear them. The cynicism that pervaded Stay Happy remains too: “The Song Belongs To Everyone” is an alternate-universe ‘60s pop smash, but Smith undercuts it by finishing the titular line with “…but I want my 50%”. For a guy who’s been able to do as he pleases over thirteen albums, it’s unclear where all this sniping, especially at the record industry he stands askance of, originates from.
When the band’s not railing against… something… they’re still capable of delivering the goods. The aforementioned “I Recognized Her” is an instant entry for the Outrageous Cherry best-of collection, bursting with an energy that the rest of the record doesn’t always follow up on. The raucous “Get Out While You Can” is a somber warning in every sense of the title’s phrase, with an air of danger in Larry Ray’s sloppy guitar solo. And the eight-minute “Outsider”, an amiable, ramshackle ode to daydreaming, plays more like “Cowgirl In The Sand”-slack than “Interstellar Overdrive”-trippy, and for the psych-leaning Cherry, it’s the perfect Zig where a Zag is expected.
All the pieces are in place for Outrageous Cherry to be a kickass band – all the right influences, a talented songwriter with a proven discography – so why can’t Universal Malcontents transcend its curmudgeonly title?