After Blake Hazard and John Dragonetti broke up, each worked off their heartbreak by writing songs. When they got back together, and married, they recorded them and put out an album, Declare a New State!, in 2006. That album had its moments, a swirling pop postcard that, even when it was addressing heartbreak and loneliness, couldn’t help but bubble. But it also suffered for the story behind it: the record almost felt like two separate entities unnaturally placed next to each other. The alternation of Hazard- and Dragonetti-sung pieces was occasionally clunky, the band’s voice not yet worked out.
A couple of years later, there’s much less doubt who the Submarines are. The group’s had some indie-radio success, some supporting-big-groups success, and the opportunity to raise a bit of a fanbase. And in the process they’ve solidified their strengths and condensed them into an altogether more accomplished sophomore record, Honeysuckle Weeks.
The first difference is that Blake Hazard plays a much more coherently prominent role in the vocals department. This is a good thing not because Dragonetti is particularly terrible, just that it allows the group to create a more coherent musical persona. Sure, they’re veering closer to the host of female indie-pop acts like, er, Feist and Cat Power and New Buffalo and even Regina Spektor, all of whom Hazard cues in intonation or inflection at one point or other over the record. But there will always be a place for well-written songs, cleanly-produced, tightly-arranged, and enthusiastically performed. The Submarines’ singles are peppy and catchy, while their more adventurous songs avoid the potholes of conventional ballads and veer off towards dub and folk.
The other major improvement for the band is in the arrangements. There’s a much greater variety to the music on Honeysuckle Weeks than the more conventional debut; but more than this, it also has more bite. From the cut-up symphonics of opener “Sub Symphonica” to the pop distortion of sparkling single “You, Me & the Bourgeoisie”, Hazard and Dragonetti show an easy familiarity with pop forms that seems to say: we could make a hit song for Heidi Montag if we wanted, but here’s something better.
On songs like “Maybe”, the Submarines easily demonstrate what a real male-female duo can achieve with the form (as opposed to a group like She & Him, which is completely overrated by critics with stars in their eyes). “Fern Beard” is a gorgeous, old-time folk duet, cracking at the edges and propelled with a hiccupping percussive effect; the vocals recall Kimya Dawson. As the album winds gently down, the cumulative effect is sweet and impressive.
“Every day we wake up, we choose love / We choose life, it’s too easy just to fall apart”, Hazard sings on “You, Me & the Bourgeoisie”, and the sustained optimism with the recognition that things can be more messy in real life is a duality that defines the Submarines completely. They’re in love, yeah, but they’ve got their problems just like any other married couple—but they’re in love! It kind of rubs off on you, and that’s awesome.