Snowglobe: Doing the Distance

[17 November 2005]

By David Bernard

Snowglobe’s second CD, Doing the Distance, seems most likely to be a song cycle about the cycle of life. In the course of 16 tracks the CD tackles childhood and adulthood. Now that I think about it, fewer than 16 tracks actually cover the life cycle, but if you stick to the highpoints, it’s that cycle that matters the most. The cover art features four animals driving little cars against a purple sky; it’s straight out of a bedtime storybook. The inner lining of the jewel case exclaims, “TOYBOAT!” three times, with a mirror image “TOYBOAT!” on the opposing side. The album succeeds beautifully in relating pop rock songs to the subjects of childhood innocence and crabby adulthood, but sappy lyrics and inconsistent lead singers occasionally kill the mood and the concept.

Snowglobe features two main songwriters: Tim Regan and Brad Postlethwaite. They trade off lead vocal duties in the traditional Paul / John manner. Tim is perfect for classic rock. Brad is perfect for, well, off-kilter kitchen-sink pop music. When he sings at a normal volume in front of normal songs, his voice sometimes drags down otherwise solid music. “Baby”, with its predictable first half, needs a better melody, but it also needs a more powerful voice. It’s only Postlethwaite’s passionate Jeff Magnum-like yell and powerful projection that ring true. Just listen to the end of “Baby”, during which his backing vocals shred the lyrics with passionate howls. Unfortunately for that song, it reverts to simplicity and sentimentality: “For a day in our busy lives, precious little baby, / Simple little child, your spirit’s brimming over and bubbling through your smile”. This is soggier than what that little child is brimming and bubbling into his diapers.

Comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel are inevitable because acoustic guitars mix with horns in simple pop dynamics, but that comparison is too easy. Snowglobe have a lot more going for them than that. The guitar solo in “Ms. June” is distorted blues straight out of ‘60s and ‘70s rock and roll. The guitar line in “Master of Forgotten Works” is a brilliant introduction to the track, and it also manages to evoke the theme music from Nintendo’s Castelvania II: Simon’s Quest. A tambourine also enters and exits the song at precisely the perfect moment. And is that a slide whistle farting noise in the background? “Aimless Sailor” might not be the best song overall, but the climax that begins near the two-minute mark, making use of a strong-voiced Postlethwaite and a simple keyboard part, is as good as pop music gets. “Calculating Fades” and “Changes” even make use of the over-the-top gothic choral vocals that the Flaming Lips utilized in The Soft Bulletin.

The album, unlike most rock records, saves some of its more up-tempo songs for the second half. “Regime”, “Rock Song”, and “Big Machine” drive the album forward; they’re sequenced perfectly to kick off side B. The optimism of “Baby”, the fifth song, is contrasted late in the album with “Big Machine”. Instead of a happy, bouncing baby, the song involves a big machine that decomposes children into adults in only five business days. Is this meant to indicate that a life of work turns children into boring adults? Who knows, but I enjoy the mysterious implications. The lyrics take on a new meaning when you realize that songwriter Postlethwaite has not been touring with the band recently in order to attend medical school. No, Brad! Watch out for the Big Machine!

The album fizzles in the end after building great momentum. “Sickness” is typical and overlong, ending with way too much droning for a concise pop band. “The Boso” is a rave-up county ditty that mixes the playful childhood attitudes explored on the album with the adult realization that everyone has to say goodbye at some point. It’s perfect as the terminal track. But then the band adds a going-nowhere instrumental that closes the CD after it was already appropriately closed.

So what if it’s too ambitious and overlong? Doing the Distance remains a collection of many excellent pop and rock songs. Enjoy them before the corporate world eats them up and spits them out.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/snowglobe-doing/