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The Rosenbergs

Department Store Girl

(Force MP; US: 17 Feb 2004; UK: 1 Jun 2004)

In their relatively short musical history, the Rosenbergs seem to have been through a lot of controversy. They once turned down a chance to play a Farmclub television slot because of a terrible contract. They signed with Robert Fripp’s label in time to see it head toward oblivion. They spoke out in favor of Napster, teaming with the service for tour sponsorship and a two-for-one promotion of their Mission:You release. Alas, we all know what became of that once mighty file-sharing giant.


Beyond all their anti-hoopla stances, the Rosenbergs remain proponents of simple, catchy, good-natured, guitar-driven pop tunes. In spite of management, label and lineup changes, the music primarily remains fun fare, courtesy of songwriter/lead singer/guitarist David Fagin. The current lineup features Fagin, Joshua Aaron on bass, Joe Mahoney on guitars, and Joe Darone on drums. After three years of trying, a new deal was secured and the long-awaited third album was released, self-produced this time around, reflecting more accurately what the band sounds like in live performance.


Department Store Girl starts its transmission with the infectious “Holding Pattern”, starting out musically right where the band left off years ago. Highlights here include Fagin’s falsetto vocals describing a situation where he’s trying to make the best of something: “Somebody stop the world / My love’s a ship and the ship just sank / Somebody stop the world / My baby’s caught in a holding pattern”.


Fagin has a knack for writing the kind of heavenly pop songs that enter your head and refuse to leave. The title track is one of those, a harmony-drenched ode to a certain pretty retail princess and her past relationship with a certain someone. The simplicity of the song doesn’t deny its power to make you want to sing out as the chorus declares: “She thinks about love while singing her bop bops / Slinging her backpack / She thinks about all those things that she could do if she could get back”.


Fagin adds a little moog for mood in his amusing, guitar-heavy paean to Miami vice partners “Crockett and Tubbs”. Here’s a song that speaks to the kid in us all, playing tough guy like his TV heroes, fantasizing about cleaning up the town and saving the innocent. The light and airy love song “Birds of a Feather” mocks itself with obviously overly simplistic lyrics (e.g., “We go together just like jam and bread”), yet manages to be a decent bit of bubblegum pop all the while, sporting piano highlights along with bits of California-style harmonies. A similar light touch graces the dulcet “Gold Coast”, wherein harmonies ponder the infernal enigma: “You are the sun wrapped around the moonlight / You’re such a mystery”.


“Blue Skies” is anything but—half plea with a love stalled to “say it all”, half confession that he wants to be her love. “Bullet Proof Vest” is an intriguing mixture of garage rock, Lou Reed casual “rockspeak”, and the frenetic party life antics of a college kid.


Fagin serves up a sweet string-accompanied ballad with “Woods” (Alison Chesley on cello, Susan Voelz on viola). In this song co-written with former member of the Churchills Kim Henry, he’s crying over years wasted and asking for some clear direction after wandering: “I wanna be something, I wanna see something, I wanna feel something good”.


“Nighttime Lover” is a serviceable entry, covering a lot of similar ground as the other songs both musically and lyrically regarding faking love, this time through the tale of a band groupie.


One of the real surprises here is the short yet delightful “Weekend (Meet Me, Hurry Up)” - another co-written with Kim Henry. It’s a mad dash to get together while the weekend ends too soon: “Meet me on the way to the falling stars / Meet me underneath the bright yellow moon / Meet me where the waves of the ocean they crash against the dune”.


The craziness of life (and death) is the agenda of “Pushing Up Daisies”. Fagin’s vocals are up front, while the pleasant song could easily fit in on a Fountains of Wayne collection. Joe Darone’s drumbeats lead the way in “Unperfect Love” (since the album’s release, he has left the band and been replaced by Andrew Burstein). There are more driving guitars courtesy of Mahoney, more harmonies, and a Beatle-esque guitar lead in this musical tale of changes afoot, having to break another’s heart and, yes, unperfect love.


Those twelve tracks are plenty, but Fagin gives you a spare hidden track as well (possibly entitled “Love is the Flame That Burns in Your Name”), featuring piano, guitar and vocals. Lest you think there’s a happy ending, let me tell you “This love is the flame that’s cold”.


Fagin and company serve up a lot of music here, and most of it is pop/rock catchy, playful and wry. While simpler in production than its predecessor, Department Store Girl suffers some from too many songs with similar musical arrangements (notably crunchy stop-start guitars in the service of bouncy tuneful pop). It’s a formula that works, but less so when done several times over in various guises. Yet there are enough highlights and departures to solidly recommend it.


David Fagin continues to craft polished, smart songs that are always nice, and often wildly catchy too. As such, Department Store Girl is bound to please fans of the band as well as newcomers. Yet the more exciting aspects here are those songs that hint at new musical directions (such as “Weekend”)—I’d love to hear the Rosenbergs depart more from their perfected “formula” moving forward.

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By James Mann
19 Feb 2001
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