A whole cottage industry of indie bands seems to have grown out of the ‘60s pop rock style that featured slightly psychedelic, twee music layered with a dab of classical instrumentation. Not the grandiose teenage symphonies from g-d a la Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds, that’s a whole other genre, but a kind of playful pop chamber music inspired by less well-known, one- and two-hit wonders like the Left Banke, Rotary Connection, and the Neon Philharmonic. Audiences considered this music experimental back in the ‘60s, when the idea of mixing different forms of music (pop and classical) was avant-garde. Today this serves as an exercise in retro nostalgia for audience members too young to remember the musical originators. By recalling the glories of an earlier era, the music implicitly functions to criticize the bland quality of what passes for pop rock today.
Vancouver’s Jason Zumpano has been making this type of music for several years, first as drummer and co-founder of the Sub Pop group that bore his name, Zumpano (that also featured Carl Newman of the New Pornographers), then as drummer for the band Destroyer. Zumpano has largely traded in his drum kit for the ivories with his latest band, Sparrow. Sparrow’s second release, The Early Years, serves up nine light and tasty pop confections. The band plays catchy melodies with appealing hooks on conventional rock instruments like Zumpano on Farfisa organ and electric piano, accompanied by others on electric guitar, bass, and drums. They are joined by cello, violin, and trumpet players. In addition, Zumpano and Lucy Brown sing enigmatic lyrics slightly off-kilter with odd vocal harmonies to give the disc a peculiar and whimsical edge.
Although not a concept album, the songs share a consistency of tone and feeling that unite them together. This also may be caused by the fact that none of the songs seem to be about anything in particular. The Early Yearsgets its name from a particular song on the album, not because these are the actual early recordings of Swallow (pre-its first album). The title song continually asks, “How do I get from here?” The songs’ lyrics often consist of koan-like questions (e.g., “Would I be mad / If I were glad / All of the time?”) or happy, evocative sentiments (e.g., “I see that it’s raining here / It’s a good time to be outside / Dark clouds and a couple of beer / Groovy time to be alive”). The existential quality of the lyrics reinforces the disc’s conceptual conceit that life is sweet, and we should enjoy it with wonderment.
While the songs flow together, several tunes stand out because of exceptionally catchy choruses, including “This is How I do It”, “All Two by Two”, and “Late Last Night”. Other tracks, like “The Flower” and “Gone” just kind of shimmer with lush instrumental and choral arrangements. Taken as a whole, the cuts create an airy elegance. The pace never gets rushed and despite the CD’s relatively short length—approximately 32 minutes—it feels long enough.
Several of the tunes on The Early Yearsmake specific musical references to past classics from the earlier era, including the melody of “I’m Just Not There” that recalls the Zombies’ atmospheric hit single “She’s Not There” and the opening bars of “The Flower” that suggests Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” (made popular by Nilsson as the theme to the movie Midnight Cowboy) except here the piece gets played on a trumpet instead of acoustic guitar. While this can make listening more fun for the learned listener (hey, I recognize that!), it’s not necessary. One can easily enjoy this album on its own merits.