The Icicles: Arrivals and Departures”

[16 July 2007]

By Mark Szakonyi

Too Cute?

It’s not that they wear matching outfits or that they sold handmade hats and mittens to finance their first EP. Nor is it that their mainstream hit “Sugar Sweet”, featured on a Motorola commercial, is saccharine to the point of possibly causing cancer in lab rats. No, it’s that the Icicles’ second full-length release, Arrivals and Departures, is as poppy sweet as it is empty. Supporters commend the Grand Rapids, Michigan quintet for capturing the 1960s girl groups’ breeziness with a modern twee-pop twist. And at times their harmonies do recall the lightness and sheen of those long-gone groups. But it’s twee pop without an edge. It is a shell remiss of emotion resonance compared to the offerings of the New Pornographers, or even Camera Obscura. Good pop candy shouldn’t have such a sweet aftertaste, for it only brings a stomach ache, as the ear craves for something in so little.

Having no reinterpretation, or at least addition, on the experience of the confusing high school experience puts them in clichéd musical territory. The overly joyful “Crazy” hits on those near-drunk-with-expectation moments of first love. Looking for the perfect song to depict a feisty character (possibly played by a precious Reese Witherspoon) realizing her heart’s desire at the climax of a zangy romantic comedy? There is something to be said about deceptively poppy arrangements over troubling lyrics. Belle and Sebastian and the Shins handle these opposing forces with dexterity, resulting in a musical smirk. Not the Icicles.

Even with the potentially somber title “Regret”, the straightforward break-up lyrics fade into embarrassing naivety. There will be those who have been waiting for a song from a cat’s viewpoint, and the Icicles have finally filled that void. Gedge the cat explains how he wants to be let out on “Gedge’s Song”.  It is a perfect alternative for hipster parents who want their toddlers to listen to something a little more hip than Raffi before naptime. And who can blame them? Raffi is so passé.

The mid-tempo “Songbird” recalls early, breezy Belle and Sebastian for the first few seconds before the chorus kicks in syrupy, pleading for summer days. There don’t appear to be any hidden meanings, and that would be fine if the harmonies weren’t so forgettable. Pleasant like a million warm and sunny days on the lawn, but not one of them memorable enough to stand out. The electric organ gives a dreamy quality to “Whirling” that takes it slow on the usual pep and actually achieves something striking, and nearly haunting. Only when they slow the pace, with songs that don’t blast the ear with over joyous harmonies, is some dimension visible. Songs such as “Fall Day” point to where the band should head in the future. Unsurprisingly, the song isn’t about the annual decay of life in expectation of winter. It’s about a stealing a kiss from a boy on the bleacher during a football game. Precious and definitely a good diary entry, with lyrics that chime, “Hopefully, you’ll notice me and see what everyone else can’t see.” Nope, I’m not seeing it.

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