[5 July 2007]
Scissors for Lefty, a San Francisco indie pop group, have been doing their best to drum up some buzz for their straightforward songs for a few years now. The band formed its current lineup back in 2002, with two sets of brothers, Bryan and Robby Garza and Peter and James Krimmel, self-released a debut LP Bruno, and step things up a notch for their sophomore album. They’ve played some high-profile gigs – supporting really exciting bands, of course – and their press release is polished up with a rave report or two from across the Atlantic. But though the group’s Killers-style marriage of dance-rock beats and indie angst is appealingly smooth, there’s not that much on their sophomore LP Underhanded Romance to get really excited about.
The title phrase comes from the first song, “Nickels and Dimes”, also the big single for the group. The full lyric is “Life at best is just an underhanded romance”, though in Bryan Garza’s swooping tenor it sounds more like “unfunded romance” (both work just as well), and it makes the song. The instrumentation, here and throughout the disc, is classic – driving bass, upbeat dance-rock drums, Strokes-style vocal affect. An economical and entirely effective pop song, not as spare as a Spoon track, but illustrating there’s power without theatricality.
There’s no doubt that the group knows how to pen a tune. Most every song on Underhanded Romance is hummable, or sing-along-able, or radio-catchy. This is cemented by a generally buoyant tone that emphasizes optimism at any cost. Sweetness and exuberance mix in equal measure on “X’s Are Forever”, a simple dance-rock ditty driven by synths and those chugging drums. Even mellower, acoustic fare has a strong upbeat edge. This upward-looking quality’s well received, even if the conventional instrumentation and songwriting strikes the listener as at times too straightforward, too familiar. The chiming guitars on “Wandering Arms”, for instance, are pleasant enough, but fail to distinguish the band from a thousand other similar indie groups which all sound nice but fail to grab you, demanding your attention.
It’s when they’re trying to be most mainstream – that grab for radio airplay or a slot on TRL – that the band comes off as most amateur. Staid songwriting tricks like the drop-out-to-highlight-vocals-followed-by-build-to-new-emotional-heights are played perhaps a few times too many over the course of the record. On “Mama Your Boys Will Find a Home”, Garza’s speak-sing delivery reminds of Barenaked Ladies, a group whose mediocre career path Scissors for Lefty would do well to take note of. And when, on the final track, the group goes for a piano-based ballad, we’re groaning inside – there’s nothing wrong with the song itself, but all this met expectation, with little exceeded, grates. In its best moments, the group promises so much more.
You come to relish the moments, as on “Next to Argyle”, that the band displays a wry sense of subversion – it’s subtle, but appreciated. The track is joyful indie pretty much the whole way through, but the final subversion “I could be wrong … but I’m not” adds a much appreciated sting. As with so many of the tracks on Underhanded Romance, it’s enjoyable despite the predictability of structure and texture. That’s what will ultimately continue to win the band fans, because if you discover a Scissors for Lefty track somewhere along your travels it’s not difficult to imagine it becoming valued over and above the transparency of its architecture. It’s often difficult to predict what songs will lodge in your head and become definitive of a period of time, but now and then Scissors for Lefty promise to do just that.