Yet another album where merely pointing out shortcomings feels like drowning a bag of kittens. Ah, well — it’s not like there are a lot of flaws on the second album by this cross-cultural L.A. duo-with-other-guys — more like not-quite-enoughs.
Fool’s Gold’s self-titled 2009 debut wasn’t re-writing the map in clear-toned American Afro-pop. But it was practiced, well-performed, zestfully propulsive at best, and…well, fun. When they got the right mix of guitar line and nimble rhythm — in the record’s first half, basically — it was ebullient and damn-near medicinal. And, crucially, there were simply a lot of neat things to listen for.
The songs on Leave No Trace seem to rely from the get-go (“The Dive”) on a safe hook instead of on the previous vibe — one of being carried somewhere you haven’t been before on a clear-toned breeze. In short, this means that the songwriting is more conventional, catchy enough but also flaccid, and mixed with an unfortunate background-y sheen.
This isn’t to say that Fool’s Gold are now Diane Warren, and their conventionalism does come with some well-needed boundaries. The bass-keyboard interplay in “Street Clothes” (the best song here) is quite potent indeed, and singer Luke Top manages to shake his voice all around “Wild Window” without sounding at odds with the song itself (a charmer). In fact, Leave No Trace may well be a more consistent album than the debut, simply because it doesn’t lose any pep in its back half like the first one did. The problem is that none of the pep in Leave No Trace is as compelling as the stuff in the first half of the debut.
It’s reassuring, though, to note that the duo hasn’t sacrificed (too) much instrumental proficiency here, and the players — led by singer-bassist Top and guitarist Lewis Pesacov — are generally strong throughout. The drumming is still quite fluid and adept, too, even though the band hasn’t had one consistent percussionist. But the obvious instrumental talent seems squandered in places, professional but working in the service of some pretty familiar material. Even Pesacov, left to fill out a lot of space, seems to be reiterating weaker versions of the debut’s progressions, just with an extra glisten.
This album’s lyrics seem to have drawn a fair bit of complaint from reviewers, and with Top now singing in English instead of Hebrew, the shortcomings are indeed more widely discernible. To me, though, this doesn’t matter much. The words are still easy to ignore, and as feeble as a few pop-out lines can be (“It takes a narrow sun to light your narrow world”), they aren’t the problem. The problem is what’s missing: nimble bass lines that extended out of nowhere are dialed-back; the singing is less conversational. Even the sax, which on the debut could unexpectedly tickle your ears right when you thought the band had run out of hooks, sounds like it’s here through obligation. And while Top’s singing is still committed, it’s less buoyant and less assured.