[9 March 2004]
There are those voices that are, as even the most ardent fans will admit, acquired tastes. Leonard Cohen’s early reedy whine and his later rumble. Tom Waits’s rusted bucket of gravel. Elvis Costello’s audible sneer. Wayne Coyne’s warble. I love them all. I decried American Idol, with its search for a voice most perfectly suited to sing meaningless melismas. I honestly thought that no person’s pipes would stand as an impediment to my appreciation of music, if that music were heartfelt and true.
Enter the Ladybug Transistor. Even though reviews of the band’s four previous albums were effusive and name-checked many of my musical hot buttons (Beach Boys, Bacharach, Belle & Sebastian), somehow, I hadn’t yet heard them. The band has been around for almost a decade, progressing with each release from the ragged sound of their debut, Marlborough Farms towards a pristine pop. Their eponymous new release offered me the chance to set things right and embrace a new favourite band.
Then I heard Gary Olson, the band’s frontman, sing. He’s simultaneously monotone and melodramatic, overarticulating every syllable as though he’s teaching English as a second language. He’s got the sort of breathy low voice that critics have likened to Ian McCulloch or Lee Hazlewood, but neither of those singers made me so inexplicably irritated the way that Olson does. Hearing him, sounding like a lethargic children’s entertainer, just made me agitated, partially because of that voice and partially because I was so disappointed in myself—I was letting my displeasure at the band’s tools affect the way I perceive its art.
Even more exasperating was the fact that no one else seemed to share my opinion. Olson’s voice is praised just as often as his somber lyrics, and his band’s bright instrumentation. In his online diary, Belle & Sebastian leader Stuart Murdoch even wrote, “I’ve been listening to The Ladybug Transistor (that boy has a terrific voice!).” I couldn’t believe it. What is Stuart Murdoch hearing that I’m not?
But I still had a review to write, and as much as it distressed me, Gary Olson’s voice is not the only aspect of The Ladybug Transistor. But trying to listen around a lead singer pushed high in the mix is a tricky task, particularly when his limited range restricts the melodies to a few notes and his exaggerated diction dictates that all songs be mid- or slow-tempo. The band definitely plays cleanly, having completely smoothed off the rough edges of their earlier albums, and the occasional touches of strings, brass, and organ to their guitar- and piano-based songs adds colour.
There’s definite musical intelligence at work here. While seldom startling, the arrangements are never dull, managing to sound delicate without being precious. The 1960s are certainly a sonic touchstone for the band, but The Ladybug Transistor manage to evoke that sound without dipping into kitsch. One moment in the song “In December”, with its sudden shift of tempo, recalls the bridge of Brian Wilson’s masterpiece, “God Only Knows”, yet somehow sounds original. The wistful, spacious steel-guitar waltz of “3=Wild” even managed to make me not cringe at Olson’s crooning—until he sang the word “desire” with such effete intensity that I felt my stomach turn. It’s only 23 seconds into the song, but it’s the longest I’d held out without such a visceral reaction.
There are two songs on The Ladybug Transistor where keyboardist Sasha Bell takes the mic. They are my favorite songs on the album. I wasn’t a big fan of Bell’s occasionally flat vocal work with The Essex Green, but here she offers a welcome reprieve. There’s a brightness to “The Places You’ll Call Home” and “Hangin’ on the Line” that separates the tracks from the album’s drabness. The drums are bigger, the guitars are louder, and the tempo is quicker. Although Bell’s performances are restrained, the band seems to connect with the material under her leadership in a way that Olson’s aloofness does not permit.
But as my trawling for reviews of the Ladybug Transistor has revealed, I seem to stand alone in my assessment of the band. Who do you believe? Countless critics andStuart Murdoch, or me? Fine. I thought so. I guess I’ll just replay those two Sasha Bell tracks and set my VCR to tape the next episode of American Idol.