[10 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
With all the dust and sun-kissed haze in the band’s sound, it seems fitting that the Skygreen Leopards’ new record, Family Crimes, is being released by Woodsist. The duo at the heart of the band, Donovan Quinn and Glenn Donaldson, seem to toe an odd line between being contemporaries of and inspirations for acts like Woods and Matt Kivel. And if the band’s kind of gauze-pop has run pretty consistently over its discography, despite some variations in fidelity, it still sounds like a well that hasn’t run dry. Family Crimes is an extension of that consistency, but also an album that truly shines in its own way at times.
The band’s last full-length, Gorgeous Johnny, felt like a self-conscious push in a new direction, with its focus on a central, titular character and a sometimes overdone polish to the songs. It was a record that aimed for both new ambitions and new focus, but just missed both. Family Crimes avoids all that self-imposed expectation and instead takes aim at a more direct but no less difficult goal: writing a set of tight, well-crafted songs. PAPERCUTS’ Jason Quever, often a collaborator with Skygreen Leopards, ran a tape machine for Quinn and Donaldson. With the tapes running, they occasionally pulled in other players like Jasmyn Wong and Nick Marcantonio and laid these 14 songs down. The straight ahead approach, with little editing after the fact, give this album an immediate charm and make its 33-minute running time feel breezy, even effortless.
But it also doesn’t make songs overly simple. The way keys and guitars echo each others rundowns over the strum of acoustics and careful vocal harmonies on “Leave the Family” sets up the album’s subtly intricate layers, both musical and emotional. “You say I’m sorry and you set the house on fire,” the duo sings on that opening song, their voices some strange, alluringly bittersweet deadpan. “My Friends” seems similarly forlorn, but the distant, thudding drums and clanging piano hint at something else boiling under the surface.
But if these songs display bright veneers masking darker underbellies, other songs are more fully and blatantly romantic. In fact, some of the best moments on the record are lovelorn but not melancholy. “Is It Love, Love, Love…” shuffles along with a glowing sway of guitars, brushed drums, and vocals. It’s the kind of song that falls somewhere in between Clark-era Byrds and the songs you hum to yourself when your deep in that first-days love. “Josephine” may worry over how “all these little days will pass you by,” but the “la, la, la” it ends on hints at better, more carefree days, a place after all the tears have dried. It is, along with “Selling T-Shirts”, one of the catchiest songs on the record, but also the one that perfectly captures how on Family Crimes dark moods don’t marry with bright melodies so much as the latter supplants the former.
These highlights display an easy yet ragged saunter that pushes the whole record forward. It’s an album so consistent, in fact, that it sometimes threatens to blend parts together. There’s a reprise of “Leave the Family” that stretches the limit of that song’s melody, and other songs like “Love Is a Shadow” and “Crying Green & Purple” are sweet enough but don’t quite stand out. In these moments, the album doesn’t valley so much as it plateaus, but it never quite falls into out and out repetition. Quinn and Donaldson are too good at their craft for that, and this bittersweet set of tunes is proof of not only the lasting nature of their sound but also its elasticity.