Acrylics: Lives and Treasure

[27 February 2011]

By Scott Branson

Acrylics are all about vocals. The duo, Molly Shea and Jason Klauber, write and sing the songs, with the help of “contributing musicians” (though it’s unclear who plays what instrument). On their debut album, Lives and Treasure, the two split vocal duties, while lending backups here and there. The difference between their voices (beyond the obvious male/female distinction) sometimes also translates to a difference in song style, leading you to believe they each write the songs they sing. If there is a division of labor between the two, the general rule of thumb is that Klauber covers the folkier, guitar based songs and Shea, the bigger sounding pop songs. However, Acrylics still have a unifying sound, or at least a unifying aesthetic.

This aesthetic could be summed up with the word, “crystal”. Lives and Treasure has crystal production. Everything is so clean, it runs the risk of sounding antiseptic. This borderline sound places Acrylics in the tradition of ‘80s pop, not the goth or synth kind, but the mainstream stuff. Pop in the ‘80s was characterized by (over) production. But Acrylics make the well produced sound minimal. The rippling guitar chord and bounding bass that starts off “Molly’s Vertigo”, one of the catchiest songs on the album, calls to mind “White Wedding”, except without any of Billy Idol’s menace. In the direction of ‘80s overindulgence, “The Sparrow Song”, with its offbeat tom struck every other measure, makes one think of Phil Collins’ more soulless fare. Almost.

Acrylics are good songwriters and they manage to nod in the direction of their predecessors while avoiding sounding derivative. The references are always partial, the kind that make you instantly like a song: like the end line of the chorus in “The Window” which almost sounds like “Eleanor Rigby”, or the disco beat and continuous bass of the title track that incorporates a part of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”. While the cleanliness of the production gives this an ‘80s studio feel, Acrylics mix their genres well, with little country slide leads, nods to synth pop, and so on. “Nightwatch”, the album’s first single, sounds like it came right off a ‘90s adult contemporary album. The song is just about ready to make it onto a TV show, with a chorus reminiscent of the Cranberries. Then this cool twisty guitar part shows up out of nowhere, sounding like George Harrison, and this saves the song by giving it a bit more soul.

Despite the preeminence of vocals, the bass might be the most interesting instrument on the album. It quietly keeps the songs bouncing along, (think ’80s blue-eyed R&B). But overall, the instrumentation on the album is pretty spare: a well-placed guitar strum, synth whine, the barest of drums and percussion. It’s a delicately constructed crystal, a real studio album. You can imagine each player in isolation, not playing together, but laying that little lick cautiously over the previous level. Not to say this album is minimalist. It sounds nothing like, say, Beach House, though it strikes out a similar swath of pop sensibility.

The main reservation to this album is that there is something so tiny and twee about it. The feeling is restrained, you can hear it in Klauber’s vocals that tremble and rasp. Shea can let loose sometimes, but it never feels like she’s belting it. You want them to just go for it rather than stay in the tightly constructed, perfectly fit, sparely yet masterfully decorated house they’ve built. The overwhelming sense is like a curling up: they’ve created a soundscape for early morning bed time when you think you’re really innocent and the sun streams in through the window and you might still be a child.

And there it is: there’s no sex. The closest they come to being sexy is on the title track. Shea chants Madonna-like “hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades” over a softly wailing guitar and the chorus has a disco beat complete with eighth-note bass and cleanly chugging guitars à la Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”. This kind of excess suits the band well even though it edges on cheese. Clarity threatens to become sterility. Sure, they have an ear for melody and even production, but who is playing this? Are they even interesting? If they more often took the step from cute to sexy, Acrylics would deliver a lusher and brasher brand of pop.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/137208-acrylics-lives-and-treasure/