Everything these days seems weighted, lumbering under a burden of resonance imposed by “the events” of September 11th, and Drugstore’s third album bears its share of the load. From the toy airplane crash depicted on the back cover to snatches of lyrics (“look at all the crazy people, running in the dark against the light / look at all the crazy people, I wonder what goes on inside their minds”, “don’t ever want to see your face in hate / hate can kill”), the uplifting melancholy of Songs for the Jet Set seems perfectly suited for the times.
Founded in Britain during the early ‘90s by Brazilian-born singer Isabel Monteiro and American drummer Mike Chylinski, now joined by guitarist Daron Robinson and Ian Burdge on keyboards and cello, Drugstore’s previous albums were unalloyed critical and artistic successes. Drugstore (1995) and White Magic for Lovers (1998) cast an indulgent eye on what Magic‘s “Say Hello” termed “all the drunkards, the prostitutes and freaks”; the albums veered, often in the space of a single song, between lulling dream-pop swirl and blasts of white-noise guitar. The band’s biggest commercial success came with the latter album’s “El Presidente”, a duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke that took on Chilean dictator Pinochet with a restrained vehemence. Although tangentially related to some of the Britpop movements that have swept the British music scene over the past near-decade, Drugstore have stuck to their own haunting aesthetic rather than jumping on flavor-of-the-week bandwagons. This dedication to their own path has served the band well, as its early albums still sound fresh.
Songs for the Jet Set comes after a three year break, although the album was recorded in a span of only ten days. Liltingly melodic, the songs on Jetset mainly eschew the occasional bursts of feedback that spiked the band’s earlier work. Burdge’s cello, in fact, plays perhaps the most important musical role here, filling the spaces formerly occupied by guitar static. The music on this lovingly optimistic album sways rather than struts, and if the record has a fault, it’s found in this imposition of restraint; Drugstore have in the past used noise as emphasis and counterpoint, not to cover up flaws in their uniformly strong songwriting, and the relative sedateness of the new album could have used just a few moments of abandon to highlight its more placid feeling. Guitarist Robinson and drummer Chylinski have the least to do, providing subtle fills more often than forward momentum; they perform beautifully, however, and the complaint is a minor one. Isabel Monteiro’s voice remains a marvel, breathy and solid at once, her hint of an accent evoking both the world-weary and the wide-eyed.
“Thin Air” does have a bigger “rock” sound than most of the other songs here, and also perfectly encapsulates Monteiro’s lyrical mix of realism and optimism, as she sings, “It’s time to say goodbye and walk away / hope everything we’ve lost we’ll find again, another time or day”. Accepting of both heartache and joy, Monteiro is one of the best and most underrated songwriters now at work. “More than Friends” implores a lover to make a break with the past, employing both sly humor and straightforward longing: “Tell her you’re still with me / that you’ve been spending time around my home / and we never waste time sleeping / . . . tell her we are more than friends”. Kristin Hersh has classified the single form as “always a little bit stupider than the other songs on the album”, and that’s unfortunately the case here in the album’s first single and weakest track. With lines like “Burning with desire, you set my soul on fire” and “I wanna take you home, I wanna take you—defenseless”, “I Wanna Love You Like a Man” reads more like a Garbage outtake than the usual level of insight at which Monteiro excels. Which isn’t to say that the song is bad, even, as it chugs along on a pounding piano and staccato cello line that’s a testament to the band’s admirable abilities.
Songs for the Jet Set might not be the perfect album for the Drugstore novice: White Magic for Lovers proves more immediately engaging, and in retrospect provides a bridge between the squall of the self-titled debut and the more relaxed qualities of Jetset. But in these trying times, the quality of empathy that Drugstore conveys—easy, heartfelt, without mawkishness or dewy sentimentality—cannot be underrated.