[20 May 2013]
Will there ever be a time when clean-cut, well-meaning young people do not feel it necessary to beat the dead horse that is Brian Wilson? Hard to say… but that day has certainly not come yet. One thing is for sure: the perky, apple-cheeked Norwegian kids that comprise Young Dreams see no reason to stop popping their ancient copy of Pet Sounds into the microwave in order to see what warmed-over melodies and harmonies might still be salvageable, even at this late date. The thing is, Young Dreams’ new record Between Places sounds less like a band ripping off the Beach Boys again, and more like a band ripping off other bands who were ripping off the Beach Boys. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not some puritanical, naïve originality Nazi; borrowing, influence, reference, and pastiche are the lifeblood of popular music. But Between Places feels so relentlessly uninventive, so jam packed with every cliché heart-warming Beach Boys vocal harmony that we have heard ten zillion times in the last thirty seconds, that I cannot help but feel as though Young Dreams have made no attempt whatsoever to find their own voice.
Worthwhile popular music takes the influences that have inspired the musicians in question and makes something special out of the materials at hand; Between Places is mere regurgitation. The two basic sources that Young Dreams are drawing on here are Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues and the Shins’ Oh, Inverted World, but without any of the uniqueness, vim, and vigor that make those albums so cool. The Fleet Foxes in particular have obviously gotten under Young Dreams’ collective skin; the songs on Between Places often sound like very faithful karaoke versions of the songs on Helplessness Blues with a few psychedelic, electronic flourishes thrown in courtesy of their interest in Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion. I just don’t hear Young Dreams in any of these songs, I hear their favorite bands, and I find that kind of frustrating.
What makes Young Dreams’ predictability and conventionalism particularly exasperating is that there are quite a few very catchy melodies and enjoyable hooks in these songs. I do not mean to say that I did not ever enjoy listening to Between Places, because I did; these songs get stuck in a person’s head pretty easily. But Young Dreams do not just wear their influences on their sleeves, they create a giant paper bag out of their influences and place the bag over their collective heads, obscuring whatever personality they might have had. Young Dreams are talented musicians and songwriters, but that talent is being squandered and obscured by following the paths made by others too slavishly. Of course, Fleet Foxes, the Shins, Animal Collective, and, of course, the Beach Boys are all very popular bands. It is quite likely that indie-pseudo-folk loving people throughout the world will say, “Golly! This sounds exactly like Fleet Foxes with a dash of Animal Collective thrown in! That’s exactly what I am looking for!” But I am here today to tell you that that is not what I am looking for. This is not a bad album, and these are not crappy songs. But this is a profoundly derivative album, and these songs do not offer us anything new. Norwegian musicians of all stripes are famous for pop ingenuity, and making new, interesting stuff out of the cultural debris that has washed up on their beaches. Young Dreams need to tap into this Nordic tradition and come up with something a little bit more compelling next time.