[18 March 2010]
The sound of pre-Beatles American pop music—specifically that of the Phil Spector/Brill Building variety—has been creeping in at the edges of indie rock lately, both in the form of unapologetic throwbacks (the Pipettes, God Help the Girl) and lo-fi, revisionist updates (Dum Dum Girls, Girls, Vivian Girls). Gigi, a collective helmed by Vancouver mainstays Nick Krgovich (No Kids, P:ano) and producer/engineer Colin Stewart and padded out with a roster of guest vocalists that reads like a who’s who of Pacific Northwest indie pop, leans more toward the former school, using both instrumentation and production to evoke the sound of decades past.
Take, for example, the big, bright melodies of the opening number, “No, My Heart Will Go On”. Aided by ample strings and horns, the song blossoms from a nondescript girl group song into the sort of warm, orchestral pop stomp that Spector would have been happy to stamp his name on. “The Hundredth Time” slows the pace a bit, bringing the album’s lovelorn lyrical fixations to the fore, with dueling vocalists (Ladyhawk’s Duffy Driediger and Ryan Peters) who jealously eye the couples pairing up at a party (“I’m leaning on a lamppost outside of the party / And crying my eyes out / For the hundredth time”). Krgovich and Stewart expertly provide musical contrast to the heartache here, in the form of a marching band snare that underlines the song’s lyrics (“Two by two / They leave together”) and a joyously itinerant piano lead that provides some much-needed post-chorus levity.
The Parenthetical Girls’ Zac Pennington is certainly no stranger to melodrama, though he dials it down a bit on “Dreams of Romance”, veering close to a croon in order to match the song’s muted, loungey gait. He does, however, bring his trademark gallows humor along for the ride, leaving a costume party with little more to show than a broken heart and a case of buyer’s remorse (“I really should have come as Robin Hood / And done myself in with the arrow / Because you never even once looked my way”).
Indie-pop legend Rose Melberg fares characteristically well on the hushed “Alone at the Pier”, which borrows Hal Blaine’s drum into from the Ronnette’s “Be My Baby” (practically de rigueur for classic pop revivalists nowadays). “Bring Myself to Smile”, meanwhile, pairs Bobby Birdman’s rich baritone with Katy Davidson’s girlish delivery, resulting in a near irresistible invitation to slow dance. Mirah gets a full-on girl group number in the form of “Won’t Someone Tell Me?”—replete with syrupy strings, handclaps, and shimmering tambourines—and more than rises to the occasion, summoning both her inner ingénue and diva. And Nick Krgovich closes things out with “‘Neath the Streetlights”, a deliberately paced ballad that finds the aspiring svengali doing his best Ritchie Valens impersonation.
While most of the songs here feel like authentic period pieces, a few tracks manage to betray the album’s contemporary origins. The Joey Cook-fronted “One Woman Show” easily feels the most anachronistic, with its wandering piano line, mentions of shopping malls and gang fights, and charmingly off-key vocals. And yet, it’s also one of the most successful numbers, a shuffling, bedroom pop lament shot through with believable loneliness. The bouncy, Karl Blau-fronted “Strolling Past the Old Graveyard” also feels a bit out of place, reading more like an A.C. Newman track than an actual ‘60s pop hit. And Owen Pallett’s largely unremarkable “I’ll Quit” is the sort of leisurely piano ballad that could have been penned during just about any decade.
Ultimately, the greatest strengths of Maintenant are those that resist being pinned to a specific time period. There’s a palpable spontaneity at play here, not unlike that which fueled those famously fruitful late-night sessions at Berry Gordy’s Hitsville USA studio. It’s this quality, paired with the album’s stargazing earnestness and thematic consistency, that makes Gigi feel like a collaboration between likeminded friends, as opposed to a calculated “studio project”. At its best, Maintenant feels both effortless and timeless—much like the classic pop from which its architects clearly draw so much inspiration.