My Life Lost to San Diego
Can’t Wait Another Day starts on a dusty road in Arizona and ends up tanned, penniless, and spent at a beachside bar just north of San Diego. That is to say, it starts where the Ladybug Transistor’s self-titled album left off: a dusty western pastoral as indebted to Lee Hazlewood as the Left Banke. Mounting a slow car for the coast, it spends most of its time basking in the warm winds of southern California. Can’t Wait Another Day, while a distinctly Ladybug Transistor album, gives nods to Burt Bacharach, Van Dyke Parks, and Harry Nilsson. It’s also the band’s best album to date—with a spring in its step and warm confidence in its voice, the release represents a something of a rebirth for the band.
‘Rebirth’ is a strong term to throw around, especially when talking about a band as esoteric as the Ladybug Transistor. The group has never sounded modern. Like Belle and Sebastian and Saturday Looks Good to Me, the Ladybug Transistor lays claim to an era of sound that never actually existed. If it had, it would have come sometime in the late ‘60s. It would have emerged from a decidedly post-war Britain suffused with fog and dressed in all the trappings of polite society. The Ladybug Transistor has always been a chamber pop band. Its arrangements are built around a clean lead guitar and an aging piano. Strings and a rampant trumpet line add classicism to the mix, while Gary Olson’s bright and tremulous baritone rounds out the sound.
Though the formula is the same, the songs on Can’t Wait Another Day are more active and up-tempo. Lean lead guitar lines reign over most of the album. The aging piano is canned in favor of a sleek keyboard. Most obvious is the new sense of place that suffuses the album—the band’s mystery birthplace now seems more southern California than Brighton Beach.
Though the new album is a shaker, nowhere is the feeling of a “new band” as evident as in the slow songs. No more are they the austere sounds of a misty Atlantic morning. The Ladybug Transistor had “Gospel”, “A Burial at Sea”, and “The Last Gent”, a trio drenched in organs and melodramatic strings. These were an exercise in form for the band. The slow tracks on Can’t Wait Another Day are firmly grounded in the Pacific. The glistening piano on “Terry” is a dead ringer for Burt Bacharach. The song could have fallen off of the soundtrack for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A classic tale of reminiscence, it speaks of “All those hours by the shore / And down to old LA” ... “All those hours by the beach / And out with Doris Day”. The listener would be hard-pressed to find a more distinctly California set-piece than this. “So Blind”, on the other hand, is a finger-picked ballad that could have soundtracked Midnight Cowboy. “Lord, Don’t Pass Me By” is the album’s closer. Here we find our hero giving up the chase, shrugging his weary shoulders, and sipping a wistful drink. Trumpet, strings, and a classic saxophone fill out the tableau.
Though the slow numbers are as strong as anything the band’s done, it’s the fast songs that truly stand out. They fairly gallop along. This is due largely to the lead guitar lines, which are allowed to take off and truly stand on their own. This is especially apparent on “This Old Chase”, where a strong, decidedly Americana guitar breaks out of the gate and carries the track like a charger. An active string section in the song’s third act provides apt accompaniment.
The album’s best surprise may lie in its sax lines. At once out-of-touch and perfectly placed, the saxophone tends to make late entrances and “ice the cake”, turning good tracks to great tracks. They also contribute to the distinctly San Diego sound. Opener “Always on the Telephone” turns smooth during its saxophone solo, and closer “Lord, Don’t Pass Me By” gains gravitas.
The standout song on Can’t Wait Another Day is “I’m Not Mad Enough”. A straight-ahead pop song, it rides in on a confident guitar and a delicate brace of violins. Thematically consistent with the rest of the album, “I’m Not Mad Enough” is about heartache—in this case a relationship falling apart. The narrator refuses to admit defeat, capping off each chorus with the knowing line, “You say it’s over, but look what’s coming round the bend”. There’s a clever sense of repetition on the track:
I’m not mad enough
Oh Lord, I’ve had it rough.
I’m not man enough
I haven’t got the stuff.
I’m not mad enough
but boy, I like it rough.
These lines appear in sequential choruses, giving the song a light-hearted air. “I’m Not Mad Enough” ends with an outro that ups the sense of athleticism on display throughout the track.
Can’t Wait Another Day has a rare sense of consistency about it. Though the Ladybug Transistor’s albums have always been an exercise in form, they haven’t always been consistently interesting. Precious set-pieces and fanciful instrumentals were used to fill out the band’s releases. Grounded in an altogether more substantial sound, the band on Can’t Wait Another Day produces a surfeit of good, well-rounded ideas. In the process, they give us a novel soundtrack: One perfectly suited to convertible rides, balmy summer sunsets, and crisp leisure suits. The Ladybug Transistor consistently flies under the radar. Can’t Wait Another Day is an excellent illustration of why audiences should take note.