Viva Voce’s Minty Fresh debut The Heat Can Melt Your Brain received plenty of critical attention, as it presented a fresh and sonically rich take on some of the more moribund styles of indie rock, from Yo La Tengo drone to late ‘90s trip-hop. The press heralded the husband-and-wife team of Kevin and Anita Robinson as one of the great up-and-coming voices in the underground rock and roll scene. It was enough of a success to convince Minty Fresh to re-release their earlier full-length Lovers Lead the Way!, a promising if muddled album that hints at the band’s future creative growth even while stumbling down dead ends and needless indulgence.
Not fully realizing that Lovers Lead the Way! was a reissue at first, my natural reaction was to think that Viva Voce was attempting to up the ante of The Heat Can Melt Your Brain. It sounded like the band was trying to take their unique approach to indie rock and expand it in order to create a huge, unwieldy epic, like how the Smashing Pumpkins took the Siamese Dream blueprint and created Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. From the opening cinematic strings of “Fashionably Lonely” to the last sputterings of the eight-minute closing number “Let’s Bend Light”, the 60-plus minutes of Lovers Lead the Way! feel almost self-consciously grand. Lovers is filled with pointless instrumental passages, both within songs themselves and as individual tracks, songs that last well past the time they’ve worn out their welcome, and an excessive overuse of sound effects and unusual instrumentation. If this were indeed the follow-up to The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, it would have been another example of a band who has had some commercial and critical success attempting to create their masterpiece too early and ending up with a half-successful/half-dull mess (or, as it is known these days, “pulling a Mars Volta”).
Still, this is an earlier album, the work of a less experienced artist, which makes it easier for me to forgive the album’s failures. The album’s mistakes are those of a rookie band with too much inspiration and not enough experience to realize what to cut and what to keep. Lovers Lead the Way! shows a band trying to do anything that it can possible do, in an attempt to see what works and what doesn’t. While much of it is excessive, especially compared to the musically tight The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, parts of the album find the band discovering their strengths along with their weaknesses.
For instance, Viva Voce’s mastery of the studio is well-evident on the album. Like its follow-up, this is one of the most beautifully produced independent albums I have heard. In fact, there are few mainstream productions that are as warm and as deep as the nearly orchestral arrangements that Viva Voce give each song. The band obviously cares deeply about every aspect of recording: mixing in instruments, keeping the sound clean but still warm and inviting, and even just making basic decisions about where in the mix to place each element. Even if these production efforts do little to add to the basic songs, the album is a treat to listen to just as an ambient experience. Lovers Lead the Way! sounds like an audiophile’s version of Olivia Tremor Control.
While the main weakness of Lovers Lead the Way! is the absence of memorable songs, a few key numbers reflect the band’s later pop glory. “Wrecking Ball”, although nearly sabotaged by a hideous coda, is a classic shiny sing-a-long number that, at heart, is actually catchier than anything from Heat. Almost as good is the schizoid “Best Thing Ever (Maybe Not)”, an effective mix of languid beauty and distorted rock and roll. “Brightest Part of Everyone”, a heavy rocker fueled by a classic handclap-fueled rhythm track, has Kevin Robinson finding one of those bits of accidental wisdom that are sprinkled throughout Heat with the somehow thoughtful realization that “everybody has the same chance that you have”. That’s Right… Watch Out!, while more filler than a proper song, shows the band genre-switching with ease moving from a gentle bossa nova groove to a steady rocker almost imperceptibly.
Unfortunately, these aspects aren’t enough to save Lovers Lead the Way! as a whole. There are too many half-baked melodies, ideas (both good and bad) stretched far beyond their limitations. The second half of the album, in particular, gets bogged down in down-tempo snoozers that sound very pretty (particularly Anita’s hypnotic coos) but fail to leave any impression. The musical richness that makes the album unique also prevents it from being great. It is a concept album lacking a concept, the work of a band trying to go every possible direction at the same time.
It’s best to listen to Lovers Lead the Way! not as a proper album, but as the primordial ooze that the The Heat Can Melt Your Brain emerged from. Buried within this unwieldy chaos are the elements that turned a largely unheralded Portland couple into one of the most promising bands in rock and roll.