The Lighter Side of Derivative
Despite the fact that it’s often painted into a corner of the musical map, there is a broad range of styles that fly under the banner of “psychedelic pop”. No matter what aesthetics they had in common, Jellyfish and Neutral Milk Hotel were distinctly different in execution, just as the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s that inspired them was hardly a homogenous blur of sitar and wacky organs.
So while it’s easy to lump the Jessica Fletchers into the psych-pop category—for they certainly belong there—it’s hardly an adequate description for the band’s sound. The variations in psych-pop exist even in loosely associated band collectives, and there’s a distinct difference between, say, Of Montreal and Dressy Bessy. The Jessica Fletchers fall more on the Dressy Bessy side of that equation—guitar pop songs with a shot of groovy, sun-kissed paisleys and daises, as opposed to acid-washed sonic experimentation—and it’s little surprise that the Fletchers have just finished up a tour opening for Dressy Bessy on the release of both bands’ new discs.
The Jessica Fletchers first garnered North American attention with the release of What Happened to The?, 2003’s pitch-perfect approximation of a groovier time in rock that offered a platter of British psychedelia with the up-tempo celebration and eminently danceable energy of the mid-‘60s Kinks. And while the group had been slowly building a reputation in their native Norway for a few years, that North American debut helped cement the notion that some of the most exciting stuff to currently happen in pop and rock is happening in Northern Europe. Coming out of the gates matured and confident in their ability to replicate the good time feelings of the past in a modern setting, it was difficult for anyone exposed to their debut and their live shows to avoid getting sucked into the party. What Happened to The? was winningly exuberant, and sometimes that’s a breath of fresh air no matter how old the sound.
With the Jessica Fletchers’ follow-up, Less Sophistication, things are slightly more subdued, though the general spirit of the band is maintained. Whereas the sound of What Happened to The? was boisterously bright with an affable grin, Less Sophistication takes its time to linger in the shade a bit and smile casually. It’s not that the songs themselves have deliberately slowed down, but there’s an element of the production that’s softer, paradoxically adding a level of sonic sophistication to the Fletchers’ usual balls-out love explosion.
Rather than starting with a huge, bold statement like “Bloody Seventies Love”, Less Sophistication eases in with “It Happens Tonight”, and the dark, staccato rhythm of the first lyric: “To look / At your face / Rearranged / I wouldn’t miss it for the world”. The provocative fight song is a thick slab of organs, bass, guitars, and “aahhh” vocals, but it’s all compressed on the low end, letting Thomas Innstø‘s vocals coast on top of the song while the music kind of rumbles ominously below. Things pick up with “Magic Bar”, though, reminding the listener of the bubblegum rock vibe of the Fletchers’ debut, but this opening combo sets the stage for a disc that swings back and forth in mood.
The recording of the excellent stand-out track “Get Connected” is a good example of how the production of Less Sophistication is both more accurately retro and less crisp than What Happened to The?. Rather than compressing the instrumentation in the manner of “It Happens Tonight”, “Get Connected” uses a tunnel-effect to separate the tracks and give the song a kind of analog tube distance—which is more garage-like, more “retro”, and it adds to the ambience of the song, but it seems overly affected, especially when followed by the more up-front “Summer Holiday & Me” in a see-saw effect.
But overall, Less Sophistication continues carving out the groove that the Jessica Fletchers have turned into their home territory. Filled with hooks and fills aplenty, this is traditionalist psych-pop in the grand tradition of having fun. The lyrics are still simplistic and lightweight, and deliberately so, because this music more about finding the right ass-shaking combination of sounds than creating a mental landscape for contemplation of deep thoughts. Tracks like “How Unlucky (Can You Get)?”, “Ready Ready”, and the title track “Less Sophistication” maintain a rainbow-colored world’s worth of summery vibes, while songs like “Get Connected”, “You”, and “On Our Way” take a moment to pause and dabble in balladry, but never at the expense of the charming smile that the Jessica Fletchers’ whole scheme hang upon.
With Less Sophistication, the Jessica Fletchers prove that their simple but effective formula holds up for more than the one novelty record, and moreover, the disc stakes their claim to rightfully stand beside the Hives and the Soundtrack of Our Lives as some of the finest pop and rock to come out of the burgeoning Scandinavian scene. And really, some basic feel-good music will always go a long way, especially in the summer sun. Less Sophistication may not be quite as deliciously quenching as the Jessica Fletchers’ debut, but it’s still a long, cool drink of lemonade on a hot day.
// Notes from the Road
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