The Brunettes: Structure & Cosmetics

[30 August 2007]

By Michael Keefe

The first two albums from New Zealand boy-girl duo the Brunettes were plump with catchy DIY twee pop that recalled both Jonathan Richman’s cool naïveté and the innocence of pre-Beatles pop. The voices of Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield are adorably unrefined, yet still highly tuneful, as if they were born to crawl out of bed at noon singing perfect little songs. That initial pair of LPs—2002’s Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks and 2004’s Mars Loves Venus—sounded like they began as stick figure drawings and construction paper cutouts, before magically springing to life as addictive pop treats.

Album number three is their first for Sub Pop. Compared to the simple charms of their early recordings, the new Brunettes album, Structure & Cosmetics, feels like a big-budget, major label extravaganza. I’m not sure if this means that Sub Pop is aspiring to the ranks of the heavy hitters, or if the Brunettes were so lo-fi that any kind of a professional recording would sound huge by comparison. I mean, their songs now fill the entire stereophonic field. What is this, the space age? New advancements in recording technology have also allowed the band to utilize the amazing power of reverb. It would appear that a bigger budget accommodated the use of more instruments, as well. No longer just a guitar band with the occasional extra tonality tossed in, the Brunettes go full-on chamber pop with clarinets, melodica, glockenspiel, synths, electric piano, and Mellotron (ooh, how Radiohead).

For anyone who’s actually had the pleasure of hearing the Brunettes before, this expanded sonic palette will come as a surprise, and maybe not even a welcome one. Then again, how many people outside of New Zealand have had prior exposure to the Brunettes? It’s quite likely that, even to the larger indie music-buying marketplace, Structure & Cosmetics will be the first Brunettes album most people will have experienced. With this in mind, I’m trying to hear this disc with virgin ears.

So, have you checked out this brand new band, the Brunettes? They sound something like Belle & Sebastian, except that principle songwriter Jonathan Bree, with his mumble-crooning baritone, would never be mistaken for Stuart Murdoch. Heather Mansfield is probably a more technically proficient vocalist, but her soprano presents far less personality. And, actually, this odd couple pairing works quite well together. As Bree croaks away on “Credit Card Mail Order”, Mansfield offers heavenly backing vocals. When, as on first single “Her Hairagami Set”, she takes the lead, he pipes in just often enough to give the song a ragged edge to hang onto. Occasionally, like at the opening of “If You Were Alien”, Mansfield’s voice takes on this weird faux-“Oriental” vibe, like she’s in The Mikado or something. This isn’t a criticism; I’m just saying it’s odd.

With sweeping string sounds and Morricone-esque guitar lines, Structure & Cosmetics often feels like the soundtrack to some indie flick waiting to be filmed, with its screenplay written around the songs of the Brunettes. It would be a cute little movie, I’m sure. It would feel both epic and pocket-sized, just like the songs on this album. The Brunettes execute this style well. Still, I can’t help but long for the DIY days. Now, I actually (and, perhaps, dorkily) tend to prefer bigger and cleaner production values on average, but the Brunettes seem better suited to the skimpy, scrawny sound of Mars Loves Venus. But, hey: They’ve moved on, so maybe I should, too. After all, they’ve created a mighty fine album in Structure & Cosmetics. It’s ambitious, and it generally lives up to its ambitions, with well-crafted songs and hummable tunes. Stylish and sophisticated, these are the Brunettes of 2007.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-brunettes-structure-cosmetics/