Long Live the New Muppet Rock
Delicate, sweeping symphonic arrangements. A sound influenced equally by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Pink Floyd. Vocals that combine Neil Young’s upper register with Kermit the Frog’s wide-eyed earnestness. Not long ago you could count on one hand the bands that met this description. Now, it’s hard not to be indifferent to yet another one. At least the Silent League has a good reason: leader Justin Russo used to play with Mercury Rev. For his part, Russo isn’t in denial about the similarities among the Silent League, the Rev, Flaming Lips, Polyphonic Spree, the Secret Machines, and others. He’s even given the movement a good-natured and apt nickname: “Muppet Rock”.
The Silent League’s unique spin on the basic orchestral/prog sound is adding a breezy, So-Cal, almost light rock feel. Wait the Thrills do that, too. Oh, well. If the League’s excellently-titled debut, The Orchestra, Sadly, Has Refused, is derivative, it’s definitely not second-rate.
Most of the songs are piano-led, midtempo meditations that feature various degrees of orchestral enhancement and quirky background noises. On the more complex songs, there’s an aura of organized chaos akin to Polyphonic Spree. This makes perfect sense, as The Orchestra was recorded with an ad-hoc band that includes members of Mercury Rev and Interpol. The title track is grand and swelling in a way that stops just short of being moving. “Goliath” is further evidence that George Harrison is the current Beatle du jour among alt-rock songsmiths, while the brief “Motion Pictures” incorporates the eerie bowed saw effect heard on the Rev’s Deserter’s Songs.
Actually The Orchestra‘s more stripped-down songs are its most effective, possibly because, with just guitar, piano, bass and drums, they give the melodies and vocal hooks more room to breathe. On “The Catbird Seat” and “Conversation”, Russo sings in the reverb-enhanced, listen-close-and-I’ll-tell-you-a-secret style of Roger Waters, while engineers Max Lichtenstein and Kevin Mcmahon have nailed the dry, muffled drum sound of Pink Floyd’s best ‘70s records. “Glass Walls” shows that the League isn’t above a little wistful “la la la”-ing in the name of a tune. The real winner here, though, is the gently shuffling “Linus”, an uplifting bit of encouragement that is all the better for the possibility that might be about the melancholic Peanuts character (“Hey, Linus, you tried so hard to fit / In a world where nothin’s new.”) Regardless, you have to love a song that features handclaps and a big AM radio chorus.
Russo’s apprenticeship with the Rev was well-spent. Reflective, relaxing and effortless, The Orchestra should please fans of “Muppet Rock” while speaking to the inner Kermit in everyone.