[22 February 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Kevin Morby plays bass for the gauze-folk act Woods, while Cassie Ramone heads up the sometimes dreamy, sometimes sleepy rock band Vivian Girls. Now, though, they’re together as the Babies, both singing and writing songs, and something has changed. They both seem to have gotten a shot in the arm on their eponymous debut. Well, at least some of the time, that’s how it sounds.
On paper they’re a good match. Morby brings the echo and intricate, distinct layers of Woods to the mix, while Ramone brings an immediate rock heft. What becomes clear is that with Morby cleaning up the specific elements—you can hear the different guitar lines, you can feel the layers building, instead of the way they can start piling up on, say, the first Vivian Girls record—he and Ramone can craft some pretty solid rock songs, complete with striking melodies and great vocal harmonies.
The two work best when they sing together. “Meet Me in the City” is a garage-rock barn-burner, both a fitting tribute to the late Jay Reatard and a reminder of how much his unbridled energy is missed. The quick blast of “Personality” works the same magic in half the time, and “Run Me Over” tones down the breakneck speed just a hair, but makes up for it when the song bottoms out on the chorus, letting Ramone’s vocals—in a rare moment of subtle emotion—echo out into space.
Ramone, often detached as a singer, finds a good foil in Morby. When they sing together, as on those standouts mentioned above, Morby’s voice is more prominent, but Ramone is the bracing shadow. Those moments find her at her most emotive, her voice rising and falling not with a considered nonchalance, but with a quiet intensity. When they quiet things down, taking more of a buzzing folk approach, her voice can work there too. “All Things Come to Pass” is sing-songy, to be sure, but Ramone’s basic delivery feels more playful here than dull.
Unfortunately, there’s not much consistency to the record. Even Morby, who in his best moments proves an engaging and surprisingly versatile singer, falls into too-basic ruts. “Sick Kid” has sweetly layered guitars, but Morby and Ramone deliver the song in a robotic bleat. “Breakin the Law” also wastes a dusty, Crazy-Horse-like lead with its general sluggishness. In the wake of speedy power-pop songs, this one falls flat as Morby and Ramone trade fatigued lines. It rarely works, in fact, when they split these songs into duets. “Voice Like Thunder” is an interesting shift in tone, a step out of the garage and into some desert in the Southwest, but Ramone spends the first half of the song yawning out her lines, and Morby’s careful delivery on the back half can’t help the song recover.
What’s so curious about this band and the lo-fi Brooklyn scene in general is how little its practitioners seem to care, even as they constantly form new bands and cross-pollinate into sort-of-new sounds. Some acts—and Woods is a shining example of this—rise above the fray and offer a challenge to the others, letting us know that there can be ambition, there can be feeling in these humble recordings. For the most part, though, each new project becomes part of a collective pat on the back, some self-congratulations for crafting an aesthetic that has, in its modest way, caught on.
The good news is that, at times, the Babies break from this trend. Ramone and Morby challenge each other’s approaches to songwriting and performing, and the results are electric and lasting. In other places, perhaps too many, they indulge established habits. While those moments don’t always fail, they certainly don’t give us anything new.