Newcomers Minks sound like they’re at a crossroads, which isn’t something you’d typically say about youngsters who just released their first album. But you can almost hear the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Boston twosome being pulled in different directions on its intriguing debut By the Hedge, coming off like a catchy indie-pop combo at moments, then a noise-playing shoe-gaze revival act at others. While Minks have the instincts and knack to make a strong first impression like, say, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Wild Nothing, they don’t have the same consistency and unified vision of those groups in grabbing, then holding on to your attention. So Minks may not exactly be going through a full-on identity crisis, but their natural growing pains show on By the Hedge, an album that’s as uneven as it is promising.
At first blush, Minks have a precocious pop side that’s instantly appealing. Opening track “Kusmi” is a warm, fuzzy blast of Slumberland-style indie pop, on which the core duo of Shaun Kilfoyle and Amalie Bruun intertwine their breathy, breathless vocals with chiming guitars. “Arboretum Dogs” comes off like an intimate, immediate DIY redux of the Church’s hit “Under the Milky Way”, getting across a chilled-out vibe that’s a little starry eyed in its own way. But it’s on the two misleadingly titled numbers “Cemetery Rain” and “Funeral Song” that Minks show off their easy pop chops the best. “Cemetery Rain” belies its dour title, finding its kindred spirit in the Smiths’ “Cemetery Gates”, both in its jaunty melancholy and its strummy sound. The band’s first buzz-generating single “Funeral Song” might be even catchier, a little bolder and livelier, as Kilfoyle’s up-tempo singing is pushed along by a woozy synth refrain. So while the chorus, “So long summer time/And I like it”, might evoke some mixed feelings, the way Kilfoyle delivers it puts the emphasis on the sweet over the bitter.
Then again, the neo-shoe-gazer tracks are more impressive in their depth and range, definitely showing more development than the fragile pop ditties. Probably the album’s richest offering, “Bruises”, shapes muscular feedback into something beautiful and melodic the way obvious touchstone My Bloody Valentine does. Like MBV, there’s something intuitive in the way Minks express blissed-out feelings through dense layers of sound. Wrapped up in its autumn sweater, “Juniper” takes a page from Yo La Tengo as it explores the warmer side of sonic experimentation, as Bruun’s emotive monotone recalls the vocal line from “Cherry Chapstick”, only if you misremembered it being sung by Georgia Hubley. On both tracks, Minks create a sense of dynamism and drama that’s approachable, climaxing in a way that gets up-close-and-personal without overwhelming you. So even if the best songs on By the Hedge are derivative enough that you can easily identify their reference points, they also give a better sense of what might be possible from Minks when they push themselves a little more.
The band’s indecision and inexperience do show on a handful of tracks where its art-scarred noodling ends up neither here nor there, as ephemeral noise floats away into the ether. In particular, it’s a shame that By the Hedge almost loses the listener’s interest when it should be piquing it early on the album, with a pair of meandering efforts that go nowhere slow: Unfortunately, the title “Out of Tune” describes a piece that might as well be the equivalent of a sound check, while “Life at Dusk” is formless because the band basically seems lazy on it. What’s more, sticking the languid “Indian Ocean” and the sleepy “Our Ritual” on the first half of the record tests your patience too much before you get to the pop gems that make the album worth your while.
In the end, By the Hedge is the work of a band trying to discover itself: Maybe Minks aren’t quite sure who they are or where they’re going yet, but at least their solid first effort suggests there’s more than enough reason to keep following them to find out what’ll happen with them. On those terms, By the Hedge might be more about the journey Minks are embarking on than a destination in and of itself.