Like the buttoned reddish-brown corduroy pocket that constitutes the artwork, Tremulous Monk’s Sparkle Like Your Shoes serves as a concise icon of 70’s style and ingenuity. Colorfully stitched, warm and fuzzy yet still sturdy, England’s Chris Wilkinson’s debut full-length couldn’t have picked a more appropriate fabric to wrap his songs in. Like those of the late Elliott Smith and other contemporaries, Tremulous Monk songs worship at the altar of Alex Chilton, John Lennon, the Small Faces, and other latter-day saints. The sound is pop and rock classicism with a modern studio knob tweaker’s bent for odd textures and arrangements. While it occasionally sounds a hair studied and restricted, Sparkle Like Your Shoes contains some damn great songs, and shows a lot of promise.
“Sister Love Her” is an immediate highlight. A torch ballad begging for a Beth Gibbons duet or a P.T. Anderson movie, it’s the best display of Wilkinson’s melodic gifts and relaxed vocal quality. Narcotized piano chords pulse their way down the scale toward an achingly beautiful and insidiously catchy chorus. The specific themes and stories of the songs on Sparkle Like Your Shoes tend to hover around love and relationships. I’m not always drawn in, but occasionally Wilkinson will offer up something as wonderfully fresh as “I’m leaving like a snail, / A Reeses Pieces trail, / So when you’re done you’ll come and find me”.
But if some lines shine brighter than others, it may be due to the delivery. Wilkinson’s voice is both a blessing and a curse in that he sometimes stresses the melody to the expense of clarity. It’s a blessing especially in light of the revolting trend of over-emoting and over-enunciation that dominates the airwaves, but a curse because mumbling means you get sporadic flashes of meaning in what feel like meaningful songs. I can glean the following from the lovely title track, “When you gonna choose / To sparkle like your shoes?” but the rest blurs by as I’m pleasantly distracted by toy pianos and the song’s eventual dissolution.
The album lags a little after a solid 1-2-3 punch. “Trees” doesn’t feel like a song so much as a vial of 70s AM radio essence seeping into shag carpeting. Likewise, the sidewinding melody and verbal rhythm of “Drinking Holes” is addictive at first, but with diminishing returns. Both songs sustain a particular mood so long they sink into torpor. You keep waiting and waiting for the song to break out and travel somewhere, but it never quite happens. Luckily, punchier tracks like “Dry Your Eyes” and “Sometimes She Needs Me” are there to smack the bitch up, as it were. Tremulous Monk seems to work best when it’s tremulous, rather than monkish. “Bliss” is the best exception, conjuring up a nice quiet storm of church organ and slow waltz timing. Plus, it’s punctuated at times by rolls of kettle drums that provide contrast as the song builds in energy and drama. The percussive flourishes also keep “Bliss” in context with the bouncier songs without having to even approach rocking.
Recorded in 2003, it’s been a long process for Sparkle Like Your Shoes to see the light of day. Hopefully what Wilkinson’s been up to since won’t take as long to reach ears and online record stores. Although the record doesn’t exactly bat 1.000, Tremulous Monk has the chops to raise modern pop rock out of its moody blues into something more resplendent. Sometimes digging into the past is more rewarding than trawling the present. It certainly is here.