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Agent Sparks

Red Rover

(Immortal (Red); US: 20 Jun 2006; UK: Available as import)

“This is only going to break my heart,” singer Stephanie Eitel sings on “Mr. Insecurity”, and whether she knows it or not, that’s exactly what this album is going to do with legions of excited, expectant indie fans.


For a while now, Agent Sparks has been collecting a considerable amount of indie hype—music pick of the month for Myspace and Purevolume, concert openings for superstars such as Fall Out Boy and Phantom Planet. One visit to the band’s Purevolume page immediately reveals why: the lead single, “Polly Anne”, brilliantly showcases a distinctly Pixies-influenced, retro pop sense. Starting with a darkly hooky bassline, and erupting into a singalong chorus, it’s the type of song that catches you with the cleverness first, then burrows into the head and won’t get out.


With that kind of killer track, it’s only natural to expect Agent Sparks’ debut album, Red Rover, to be an enjoyable, if slightly derivative, slice of indie pop. It’s certainly laid out along that template; 11 tightly produced tracks, most clocking between three to four minutes, each packing the same verse-huge chorus-verse structure that doesn’t leave much room for experimentation.


The first two tracks are encouraging: “Waving By” employs gorgeous harmonies from the dual-gender singers to create a wistfully memorable chorus; then there’s the already-mentioned “Polly Anne”. But Red Rover loses steam from there on, caught up in its own clumsy lyrics and endless progression of tight-but-not-quite-catchy-enough tracks. “Face the Day” is an awkward meditation on mortality that ends with the terribly overwrought screech: “I like being a socialized animal / How about you?” “Maybe Tomorrow” is a slightly folksy, almost Jack Johnson-ish listen that’s ultimately just as forgettable, and “Beautiful True” floats into your head, sounds real pretty with its pianos when it’s there, and floats right out when you’re done listening.


Ultimately, Red Rover sounds like a sophomore slump, which is pretty worrying, considering this is the group’s (rather hyped) debut. None of the songs are downright terrible (besides maybe “Mr. Insecurity”, a demonstration of how to ruin a track with too much screaming), but many sound rushed, as if someone could have come up with a better chorus or a more interesting instrumental if only given the time. As it stands, most of the tracks push towards the “memorable” line, but never quite cross it.


It’s a shame, because there are plenty of tools that Agent Sparks has at its disposal to set itself apart from its peers. Not least of these is the dual-gender frontpeople employed for the vocals; the female vocalist in particular, Stephanie Eitel, is a talent, swinging between husky on “Peeping Tommy”, off-the-wall energetic on “Polly Anne” and absolutely savage on “Make Up Friend”. And the band still have the ability to bolt off taut, exciting retro-dance-punk when packed with the right melody.


I wonder if there’s the reverse of a sophomore slump?

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