Perhaps the least plausible of Fountains of Wayne’s character sketches is that of “Leave the Biker” from their debut. For one thing, it’s difficult to believe that there’s an overlap between Chris Collingswood and a motorcycle enthusiast’s choice of love interest. Secondly, it speaks volumes about Fountains of Wayne’s kitschy and antiquated worldview that a biker is still considered a paragon of coolness. And yet, the lead up to the chorus makes a lot of sense, when the protagonist wonders if his adversary had ever cried because his cat died or he couldn’t get a date from the prom. The message: self-doubt is the opposite of cool.
People won’t love Serena-Maneesh’s self-titled release for its melodies or lyrics, but rather the fact that it’s the most confident debut to come out in a long time. An icy, ungraspable coolness pervades the whole experience: the band’s wardrobe looks like the photo negative of ROYGBIV, they’re Scandinavian, and their influences are so immaculate they can be run off as a list of bulletproof letters: MBV, VU, SY, JAMC. Even if the original pressing of this was restricted to being sold in Hyderabad bazaars, it sounds like the kind of album that knows it has a built-in fan base of hipsters willing to wait in line for hours for a chance to get to the stage and stand completely still.
Don’t let any of that dissuade you if you happen to have a phobia to hype: Serena-Maneesh is the rare beast that can interact with My Bloody Valentine’s endlessly influential Loveless as a peer rather than a mere flatterer. Yes, you get many of the typical signifiers of shoegaze: the distorted unison bends, bi-gender harmonies, and if it wasn’t for the song titles, I’d have no idea the lyrics were in English. But these are rock songs rather than swirls of sound, as only “Her Name Is Suicide” and the penultimate interlude of “Simplicity” swim in reverbed amniotic fluid. Guitar, bass, and drums exist in distinct spaces, more like Neapolitan ice cream than Wavy Gravy.
What truly makes this album stand out is the group’s sense of control. There are certainly melodies that will reel you in, but the band’s unbelievably steady hand keeps them just enough out of reach to avoid coming on too strong. For all intents and purposes, “Un-Deux” is the most immediately gripping tune, but when it ends at the 1:56 mark, it’s more a matter of knowing how to leave ‘em wanting more than a songwriting faux pas. “Beehiver II” sounds like it might cross the Icarus Line into fuzz overkill, but a roller-coaster hook drops in and rights the ship. Like most of the more immediately ingratiating moments on the album, it isn’t so much a planned chorus as it is a hook happening in real time. The listener can pretty much pick and choose what they consider to be the catchy parts.
Their mastery of dynamics is even more important when Serena-Maneesh stretch out. In lesser hands, the chugging motoriks of “Candlelighted” and “Serena’s Melodie Fountain” would simply be known as “the long ones.” Knotted riffs lock into grooves only to be jarred out by blasts of noise and then put back into place. The only time they let their guard down is on the luminous “Don’t Come Down Here”, where the inner beauty of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” is unlocked before an outburst of volcanic distortion creates a fault line. A longing slide lick clears out the rubble and brings on the album’s most breathtaking moment.
There’s only one debatable misstep here. It’s barely a flub, but “Your Blood in Mine” is a typical “take it or leave it” closer that clocks in at over 12 minutes. Serena-Maneesh doesn’t suffer too much without it and doesn’t gain all that much from it, but it’s a rare time where they play towards convention. With that aside, Serena-Maneesh is a debut that will likely garner the highest praise possible, which paradoxically will lead to doubt: they can’t top this, can they?