The Brunettes’ last album, the Sub Pop release Structures and Cosmetics, was a wonderful set of charming indie pop songs. The slim disc made the most of its short playing time, trying out different feels, from twee-pop sunburst to moody minor-chord pining, and it all seemed to work. Each song felt spaced out, but still contained. Each moment created with perfection in the studio, but still with an organic sway to it.
But the Kiwi indie-poppers return on Paper Dolls marks a shift away from that organic feel, which isn’t the bad omen you’d think. Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield maintain the studio polish they’ve built up over their first few albums — and brought to a peak on Structures and Cosmetics — but the focus of their sound has shifted. The electro-pop elements that have always floated on the outer borders of their sound, all those synths and drum machines, are up front and running the show here. And the shift works for the band, keeping their shiny charm without sacrificing the spacious melodies that let Mansfield’s voice float along, while Bree croons in under the breezy notes from time to time.
Of course, before they get where they’re going on this record, the Brunettes take “In Colours” to remind us where we’ve been. It starts with the simplest of piano melodies, which is then beefed up only slightly when a guitar joins in. But that stripped-down feel only lasts a minute or so before the band is back into the dreamy indie pop we heard from them three years ago.
But that trip down memory lane doesn’t last. The next track, first single “Red Rollerskates”, gives us the Brunettes in the here and now. Bree does his best job channeling Stephen Merritt, singing of how he walks too fast for his asthmatic girlfriend. But unlike the Magnetic Fields, every move in this drum-machine pop is clarion clear. The snap of the rhythm section, the slight up-stroke guitar in the background, the steady drip of pianos, the spacey synths shadowing the vocal melody — it’s all distinct, but all together builds up a strong and awfully catchy pop song.
It’s also the true entryway in the rest of the album. “The Crime Machine” shuffles between blips and beeps and lean power-pop, before meshing them effectively in a cool but thumping chorus. “Magic (No Bunny)”, with atmospheric synths and drums up front, and the organic sound of ringing guitar chords buried in the mix, is a haunting back and forth between Mansfield and Bree. Mansfield’s high, airy voice is arresting with this spare mix behind it, and Bree comes off like a charming lounge singer. It is because the two sound so different from each other that they work so well together. Simply changing singers mid-song here shifts the feel, the tone, the very tempo of the track, and gives the album even more variety.
So overall, Paper Dolls is a much more contained affair that its predecessor. With drum machines and blips up front, there’s not as much room to let these songs stretch out and throb like they might have a few years ago. But the title track, set right in the middle of the record, is an expansive 5-minute plus home run for the band. It is perhaps the best melding of all their strengths, both past and present. Layers of guitar echo and yawn over the intro, playing against the spare, metallic shuffle of the drum loop. Then light synth notes poke holes through a bed of strings, building the song into a thick haze, alternately warm and ghostly cool. By the time Mansfield starts singing, nearly two minutes in, the storm parts leaving guitar and keys as the lonely backdrop to another wonderfully sung duet. They keep it going until they concede that, “I know love is a game,” both of them sighing with that knowledge. And then the storm whips up again, but the synths are stronger, the backing vocals coated with a tinny echo.
That subtle shift in focus shows the band moving on, becoming this new, more electronic-savvy band. And why the hell not? The Brunettes have proven themselves as a standout indie-pop band, and by moving on to new noises to fill out that striking pop sound, they keep themselves fresh. Sure, the electro-pop leanings on Paper Dolls may sap their songs of some of the dreamy haze they had before, but in its place we get an immediate brightness to this collection, one that doesn’t fade with repeat plays. In the sure hands of the Brunettes, Paper Dolls turn out to be quite sturdy.