Sweet and Low
There’s something very special about the Icicles. The Grand Rapids, Michigan group has created an EP here that’s every bit as sweet as its namesake, yet cuts deeper when it needs to. Don’t be fooled by the super-catchy songs and pretty female vocals (though do enjoy those factors immensely), as the Icicles hit upon a beautiful bittersweet streak throughout their six songs here that should be taken in seriously. And, of course, that seriousness should be taken as nothing but fun.
The Icicles are a four-piece, with Gretchen DeVault’s vocals and guitar leading the way. But rest assured, this is not another one of those groups with a female lead as the centerpiece with the rest of the band standing in the shadows. No, instead the band works as a whole, with Korrie Sue on drums, Joleen Rumsey on a wealth of instruments including a farfisa and glockenspiel, and Daniel Lambert on bass, trumpet, and cello. What the Icicles create here is deceptively simple pop that echoes a time gone by when girls wore those skirts with the dogs on them and sock hops were the rage.
Opening with the lovely “Margie”, which is punctuated by Lambert’s trumpet, Pure Sugar does its damndest to hook the listener right away. And if you’re any fan of the simple pleasures of pop, it will only take the first few bars of this song to get you tapping your toes. It’s an interesting song, one that DeVault says started out as a ballad but picked up its legs over time and became the bouncy number that it wound up as. Its most interesting aspect is perhaps the gender-bent chorus of “Margie dear, I love you so / Let’s go to a picture show / In a world of celluloid / You’re my girl and I’m . . . I’m your boy”. It’s a terrific song and one worthy of slapping on as many mix discs as you can.
From there, Pure Sugar jumps to the sweet pathos of “Polyester Dress”, a song about a girl sitting at the side at one of those old fashioned dances waiting to be asked to cut a rug with some suitor. DeVault sings “It’s just me in my polyester dress / Rock and roll haircut and my ‘50s glasses / Do you even know me, do you remember when? / Sat in the corner, just waiting to dance” as the rest of the group chimes in with “na-na-nas” and Joleen Rumsey’s keyboard hums along in the background. If anything, DeVault has captured that innocent sort of longing and wanting to join in that a lot of us have felt from time to time.
The exceptional “Lemonade and Somersaults” was written after Korrie Sue and her husband were driving around one day and saw a young girl turning somersaults next to her front lawn lemonade stand. The song itself captures the essence of the laziness of summer and the simple pleasures that kids often find joy in during the season. Highlighted by Gretchen’s rhythm guitar, chiming lead lines, and Lambert’s melodic bass, the Icicles score another winning tune that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head pretty quick.
After that, there’s the joys of “New Haircolor”, which extols the virtues of dying one’s hair as a pick-me-up solution to feeling down. And, well, it’s hard to argue with the notion when the band puts it forth in such a joyous way. “I think I’ll stop at Sally’s / Pick out a new color for my hair / Red, brown, blonde, I don’t care / I just want a new color for my hair / It makes me happy when I’m feelin’ kind of blue / That’s just what hair color can do”, sings Gretchen. Dig the glockenspiel in the background of this song, too.
And it should be said that the Icicles’ arrangements are always tasteful. They don’t push an oddball instrument too far or go into overkill with the nostalgic themes. This is what pure pop is truly all about. A strong sense of melody, some cool lyrics, and a tight sound that keeps you coming back. Producer Dave Trumfio (who has worked on albums by Pulsars and Holiday) has brought out the best from the band here, leaving enough of a fresh, live sound but also topping it off with just the right amount of studio spin so the finished product sounds perfect. By the time you’ve capped it all off with the yearning “So Sad” and the punch of “Skater Boyfriend”, you too will appreciate Trumfio’s modest yet appealing designs.
Don’t miss out on the Icicles or Pure Sugar. It’s one of the best EPs of the year. And at six economical and highly addictive tunes, how can you go wrong? You can’t. Will the disc induce cavities while listening? Maybe, maybe not. The band certainly knows how to temper the sweetness with just a hint of melancholy, so it’s not completely pie in the sky. But it’s not far from it. Yet who cares when it sounds this damn good and fun? Give this one a spin, you’ll be glad you did.