Pavement reminds me of a young Branches, having a ball, mixing it up, scrapping and yelling. I’m loving every minute spent with this damn Branches crew. Their self-titled debut contains the same mixture of giddy fun, loose experimentation, and smart, hooky arrangements as those aforementioned indie-rock legends. With the three members all sharing singing/songwriting duties (fourth member Tim Joyce, of Lesser Birds of Paradise, joined post-recording), the album’s 34 minutes offer plenty of diverse moments, each song a subtle stylistic departure from the preceding number. Inventive playing and easy camaraderie keeps the record focused as a whole. Branches is a promising, ambitious start, and a welcome re-injection of levity to the world of indie rock.
“Do You Remember?” and “Mary Gets Around” are two very different instrumentals that ably demonstrate Branches’ wide range of mood and atmosphere. “Do You Remember?” starts the whole show off with partly cloudy guitar, melodica, bells, and Byce’s jazz-speckled drums. The tone is as nostalgic as the title suggests, but it’s not the nostalgia of flipping through an album of sepia-toned photographs. Branches songs are about nothing if not motion: the woozy propulsion of the bass, the skittery but solid percussion, and elastic melodies. So if you answer “Do You Remember” in the affirmative, chances are you’re remembering verbs: playing, kissing, running, swimming, laughing. “Mary Gets Around” also features tinkling bells, but it’s slightly optimistic melody is cut with ominous, stormy background noise and feedback that threatens to overrun the whole song but never does. Do you remember Mary getting around? This song evokes the kind of mixed emotions you might have if you do.
The jangle-pop of “Pick-Up Game” features Seth Bohn’s clear and clean vocal delivery offering up lines like “let’s play kick the can” without pretensions of kitsch or cool. The jerky rhythms and interplay between guitar and bass remind me of early R.E.M. The emotion of the song is implicit in the harmonies and textures, instead of being packed with melodrama (re: recent R.E.M.). “Heat Lamp Tramp” gets a lot of humorous mileage out of the heat lamps that warm Chicago’s El platforms in the winter. “She’s jumping the turnstiles / She walks up the ramp / She’s wearing next to nothin’ / She’s my heat lamp tramp” sings Byce, while 80’s synth sounds and guitar riffs come within a hairsbreadth of hamming. But not quite. The remarkable and satisfying thing about this record, and probably what draws most of the Pavement comparisons, is that its humor lies in performance and musicianship, rather than in gags and goofiness. The bass-line and drawling guitar figure on “Match Makin’ Beats” will make you smile, as will Schulman stretching out the line “Brother can you spare a dime?” And if the barbershop harmonies on “Glassy Winged Sharpshooter Vs. The Medfly” don’t do the same, at long last, have you no sense of decency, sir? It’s no easy feat to write songs that are fun and engaging.
Still, Branches possesses the vibe of an opening salvo, an introduction, an eleven-way sign of things to come. While the album is consistent as a whole, each song opens a different door to territories that can be explored deeper and further, from the swaggering, hand-clapping “Dusty Gritz” to the breezy “(Save It For A) Cold and Rainy Day”.
With a bevy of Midwestern shows and a recent swing to the East Coast, Branches are picking up steam. This debut was recorded some time ago, and the word on the street is that there’s plenty more where this came from.