Miniature Tigers’ songwriter and frontman Charlie Brand has a gift for catchy melodies and a penchant for offbeat subject matter. These qualities have served certain songwriters well in the past; hell, They Might Be Giants have had a career for three decades because of it and have themselves inspired a new generation of nerd-rockers, including, one assumes, Charlie Brand. It’s really not a bad subgenre to work in. Literate nerd-rockers tend to quickly find a devoted cult audience who can sustain a musical career for years, and the best seem to get a lot of critical respect as well. On the other hand, once you’re pigeonholed, it’s difficult to grow your audience beyond the cult. Difficult, but not impossible, as the Decemberists have shown over the past few years.
Miniature Tigers seem to be of two minds about being labeled as nerd-rockers. On the one hand, they’re hanging out in the company of more blog- and buzz-worthy indie-pop bands like Neon Indian, who produced F O R T R E S S‘s lead single “Gold Skull”. On the other hand, Brand brandishes an acoustic guitar emblazoned with the Dharma logo (Swan station version — yes, we nerds recognize our own) from Lost, so he probably doesn’t mind the nerd term too much. The band’s recently relocation from Phoenix, Arizona to Brooklyn, New York, counts as a wash, since Brooklyn is a substantial hotspot for both nerd-rock and indie music.
All of this background serves to identify what sounds like a substantial push-pull on F O R T R E S S. Brand has expanded the band’s sonic palette considerably here, with all sorts of interesting sounds beyond the group’s usual guitars-bass-drums instrumentation. When these sounds are combined with Brand’s lyrical weirdness, the songs work well. When he sticks to more typical subject matter, the catchy melodies seem to go missing and the album drags. The first instance of this is the pretty ballad “Dark Tower”. The instrumentation is simple, dominated by gentle acoustic guitar and open minor-key piano chords. But the refrain of “Living in a dark tower / Getting darker by the hour / Will I wake up” is melodically inert. There isn’t much of a hook to go with the nicely arranged bedrock music. “Gold Skull” features a couple of bloopy synth lines and a bouncy bassline, but once again comes up short in the melody department. “Tropical Birds” finds Brand singing in a tone of voice that makes him sound nearly identical to the Shins’ James Mercer, which in turn makes the song sound like a subpar Shins track.
F O R T R E S S has its share of highlights, too. Opening track “Mansion of Misery” begins with several flexatones ringing like bells before a shuffling drumbeat ushers in the main song. Brand’s lyrics talk about self-pity and emotional distance between a couple as triangles and other keyboard and percussion instruments swirl around in the background. Then the song hits a bridge of crashing guitars before tossing in a random vocal reference to The Sound of Music and a piano-dominated outro. It’s an ambitious song that manages to do everything well, and it would be the highlight of the album, if not for “Rock n’ Roll Mountain Troll”: The song starts with Brand singing in a high, lonely voice about being “Stoned at 3 AM and talking to myself in public / I think I really hit a low, don’t you think so?,” accompanied only by a quiet acoustic guitar. Then the pounding starts, in unison, from guitars, bass, and drums. Brand’s lyrics get surreal, “You plucked out Crime and Punishment / From a bookcase under the stairs / The staircase where I stared into your mind.” Then the four-on-the-floor beat gains a backbeat as the ultra-catchy refrain comes around: “Rock n’ roll mountain troll / Living out your life inside a room / Surrounded by the things you thought you knew you wanted ooo.” This is the sort of song the band excels at. The weirdness of the words distracts the listener from the earworm just enough to keep it from becoming that cloying kind of catchiness that sticks in your head and annoys. “Japanese Woman Living in My Closet” has the same sort of effect. The title says it all, really. It’s a high-speed, high-energy story song about heartbreak, namely the kind that affects the narrator when the titular woman moves out of his closet after living there for a year.
There are a lot of ideas, both musical and lyrical, packed into the ten songs on F O R T R E S S. For Charlie Brand and his band, the weirder, more complex ones seems to work out the best. It was this way on their first album, Tell It to the Volcano, as well, although not quite as pronounced. When Miniature Tigers tone things down, they just sound like — sometimes too much like — their indie-pop contemporaries. When Brand lets his freak flag fly, the band becomes a great combination of pop hooks and strange concepts. And that’s better for pretty much everyone involved.