Have you heard of the Ladybug Transistor? Their album The Albemarle Sound was named as one of the top 100 albums of 1999 by both WNYU 89.1 FM and The Onion. They’ve also had a lot of press coverage from publications such as Magnet, The Village Voice, and even The Washington Post. Yet, they still don’t quite have the name recognition or commercial accessibility of, say, Belle and Sebastian. But, as I will try to convey, they should.
If you were to somehow blend Charley and the Chocolate Factory with the The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it would somewhat recreate the sound and mood of the Ladybug Transistor’s new album, Argyle Heir. I could say that their style is in some ways a mixture of ‘60s bands such as the jangle pop of the Byrds or the baroque pop of the Left Banke. Or I could say that the surreal mood Argyle Heir creates could be paralleled with the mood of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One thing is for sure-they definitely borrowed from the pop sounds of the ‘60s. But, it’s not that simple. It’s obvious that Argyle Heir wasn’t recorded in that era.
Perhaps one reason the music doesn’t quite fit with ‘60s pop is because they’re from Brooklyn. Though the songs are folksy and dreamy, they create a unique sound that is once playful and eerie. Though pastoral pop is not usually associated with the inner city, but rather rolling hills and tall grass, the Ladybug Transistor’s music somehow fits. The lead singer, Gary Olson, doesn’t have the typical poppy, smooth voice that is often associated with such luxurious pop melodies. Instead of being light and high, it’s somewhat low and gruff, but with a nice little vibrato. Often the songs are played in minor keys and have somewhat of a bittersweet edge to them.
Though the album works beautifully as a whole, I do have some personal favorites. One is the folksy-alt-country sounding “Echos”. The song begins with a little twangy guitar and Olson jumps in with a low lyrical line. The chorus is full-bodied with multiple voice parts, creating a catchy hook. Synthesizers and strings add another layer to this wistful piece.
Another is the sly-sounding “Nico Norte”. The signature of this piece is its somewhat jazzy psychedelic feel, complete with heavy bass-line, intermittent horn parts. Olson again sings the lead, but the song is laced with intricate harmonies. A synthy harp sound decorates this tune set in a minor key.
Finally, the most out of place song on the album, is “Reclusive Hero”. I don’t say out of place in a bad way. The song is just a little different stylistically. The piece begins with a synthy string part. Olson then comes in quietly, almost whispering. Then an oboe line floats above the top. A drum beats and builds up the momentum until the chorus comes crashing in. The string part becomes more heavily layered, full-bodied, and hits a fortissimo. Once the chorus is finished, the song is once again more subdued. That is, until the next chorus. Towards the finish of the piece, the song makes another mood switch, with a bridge of whimsical strings, and then ends once again with the subdued verse.
Argyle Heir, Ladybug Transistor’s fourth full-length album, reiterates the strength and originality of the band. It is a triumphant, and somewhat more introspective, follow-up to their critically acclaimed album The Albemarle Sound. Argyle Heir is most definitely pop, but the instrumentation carries a bit of reckless abandon that is more often found in jazz. The Ladybug Transistor isn’t out to make hit singles, just truly artistic albums that are sure to seduce the listener into basking in their Ladybug world.