Time for yet another installment of Hotly Tipped Band of the Week. This go-round we meet the Sharp Ease, four lovely young ladies from Los Angeles who have toured with the likes of the Von Bondies, the Gossip and that ol’ fatherfucker Peaches, and were nominated for Best New Artist way back in 2003 by LA Weekly (though they lost to Moving Units). With all that backing, they’re now dropping their debut album Going Modern on an unsuspecting public. But earning the designation “Hotly Tipped” doesn’t mean a band is on its way to “Breakout Stardom” or even “Next Big Thing”—ah these crazy, ultimately inconsequential, rock journalism terms—and while the quartet may boast some impressive tour mates, they’re not quite ready for prime time.
Let me back up a step: The Sharp Ease—vocalist Paloma Parfrey, drummer Christine Kings, bassist Dana Barenfeld and guitarist Sara Musser—sound pretty, uh, sharp. They run the gamut from Pixies-like angularity (album opener “Advantage”) to funky maybe-calypso (“Life Preservers”) to the garagey title cut, and in every incarnation they sound credible - never once does one get the vibe that the band is playing make-up and wearing guitar. Still, Going Modern never quite gels.
Lead singer Parfrey has a great voice, able to capture both sex kitten coos and schizophrenic melt-downs, but she’s still learning to balance these opposing forces. She pleads through “Manipulation” and freaks out on “From the Dodge” (mixed by the Pixies’ Joey Santiago for what it’s worth), and seems to catch her breath on “Tie Me Over”, with the whole band finding their groove, really… until Parfrey loses it at the end. It’s Going Modern‘s best two-thirds of a song. Throughout the album, it’s impossible to tell which band is going to show up; it’s disorienting and somewhat unsettling.
And not to pick on Parfrey twice (hey, I said she had a dynamic voice!) but her lyrics are a little too heavy in the head-scratching department. Can anyone help me decipher “I’m squeezing in a mildewed / Cold turkey silhouette”? I’m hardly a strict lyrical constructionist or interpreter, but when a band gets willfully obtuse with its words, it causes the songs to lose focus. Is it any wonder then that one of Going Modern‘s best tracks is “Joan”, a silly ode to a friend of the band who has “got red hair / and works at The Lair”, and is sung by Barenfeld?
At the risk of damning with faint praise, it’s refreshing to see a band, warts and all, turning in a debut album that hasn’t been polished and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life. Going Modern is an album that shows a band with room to grow. The ladies of the Sharp Ease have taken a lot of different ideas and run several directions (sometimes at once) with them. It’s time for the band to take what works best—nervy jangle, as evinced by the title track, “Joan” and most of “Tie Me Over”—and build on that. After all, experimentation is what debut albums are for.