[31 October 2007]
The amalgamation of the pop and indie spheres has always been a curious one. One the one hand, you’ve a genre dealing primarily in the art of catchy melodies and repetitive song structures designed to garner mainstream appeal. On the other, you’ve a scene derived from almost the antithesis of this, rooted in DIY spirit and a desire for alternatives from convention. Of course, this doesn’t mean the union is necessarily an unhappy one. Australian ensemble Architecture in Helsinki wooed the indie crowds with their 2005 sophomore album In Case We Die, while bands like the Apples in Stereo and Mates of State also prove that vivacious pop sensibilities and the respect of the alternative music ‘scene’ need not be mutually exclusive ideas.
Nevertheless, it remains a tricky tightrope to tread. Happily, then, Prints don’t bother to tread it at all. Indeed, while their history is likely to illicit the respect of any alternative music mogul, with fifty-percent of their line-up constructed of prolific multi-instrumentalist Kenseth Thibideau (Pinback, Sleeping People, Tarentel and a whole lot more), Prints’ self-titled debut is often unashamedly pop. In fact, pervading on the album is an aura of indifference to any musical fashions, there’s too many high-pitched “whoahs” and “wheys” for anything like that, surely, and it’s all the better for it. For Prints is a kaleidoscope of influences, a diverse and eclectic mix of dreamy melodies and eccentric vocals, molded into an imaginative but refreshingly accessible collection.
Opener “Easy Magic” is a jubilant affair, with overlapping, lyric-less vocal refrains fronting some electronically warped thumb piano. The result could very well be a lost track from Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. “Two Much Water” is similarly vibrant, and sees Zac Nelson’s voice finding an unprecedented happy medium between Midlake’s Tim Smith and Print’s almost-namesake (one suspects this isn’t entirely accidental) Prince. “Blue Jay”, meanwhile, is the perfect soundtrack to the summer for which it has arrived too late, with unabashedly pop guitar hooks floating dreamily amidst bouncy bass and flute so breezily carefree you can almost see the summer birds fluttering in the sky. Though the bittersweet lyrics (“The one thing wrong with this, you see/ Is that you’re not in love with me”) convey a sense of inability to find consolation amongst all this insouciant warmth, it detracts little from the track’s ability to create a contagious flow of effervescence.
If all this paints a picture of orthodox accessibility, then it is a deceptive one. For while, admittedly, the acoustic opening pangs of “Blue Jay” wouldn’t sound entirely out of place on a, whisper it, Maroon 5 song, Prints is an album of eccentricity and impressive variety, each of its eight tracks molding the band’s sound into a markedly different, and not always entirely comfortable, shape. “Meditation”, for instance, lives up to its name with simple, picked acoustic guitar refrain lying underneath a blanket of baritone sighs and spiritual wails. While the end product is far from being the most interesting few minutes of Prints, it is perhaps a necessary and effective reprieve from the quirky pop mannerisms of the rest of the album.
Admittedly, though, after the summary exuberance of “Blue Jay” has floated by, Prints does see a decline in the vivacity that pervades over its opening twenty minutes, though its idiosyncrasies remain intact. Indeed, “I Wanna Know” begins under the control of a restrained bassline (of the few pointers towards Thibideau’s work in Pinback), and despite some frankly bizarre vocal warbling towards its conclusion, remains one of the more composed offerings here even after breaking free of that restraint. Likewise, though “End” begins not all-to-dissimilar to the effervescent free-for-all that is Architecture in Helsinki’s “Do the Whirlwind”, it soon contrives to be less free-for-all and more chilled-out electronic reverie.
But far from marking a decline in quality, it is Prints’ reduction in overt pop style which highlights its primary strength. Whatever the album’s temperament at any given point; be it vibrant, carefree, meditative or melancholic, the band’s vast melodic scope remains intact. The most obviously expressive of Prints pickings, such as “Too Much Water” and “Blue Jay”, are pop songs through-and-through and overflow with memorable, contagious melodies. But it is moments like the effortlessly effective keyboard refrain of “I Wanna Know”, and the contemplative, glorious vocal harmonies of “All We Knead” that make the album transcend the realms of simply enjoyable pop music and make it an album of immensely satisfying musical prosperity.
So in the end, Prints’ debut offering stands as a homage to influences both members’ other projects don’t give them an opportunity to exert, but also as an exercise in creativity and invention. It is impressive in its diversity as well as its range, flitting effortlessly from twee pop to more contemplative placidity. Ultimately, however, their strength lies in their ability to incorporate superb melodies into all of the above, making Prints an unusual but utterly unforgettable experience.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/prints-prints/