Entertaining '90s geek-rock throwback features off-kilter but catchy guitar riffs and songs about Wile E. Coyote and Absinthe-fueled trips to outer space.
If Whimsy had been released in, say, 1998, it would’ve been called alternative rock. The press release for Tetherball’s debut album name checks Spoon and Beck, which are more or less accurate touchstones. There are hooky guitar rock songs here that superficially resemble what Britt Daniel and company do -- albeit much less efficiently. The quieter acoustic songs invoke the more mellow side of Beck, theoretically appropriate with Mr. Hansen’s subdued Morning Phase coming out earlier in 2014. But really, Tetherball’s energetic, wide-ranging lyrical and slightly bent musical style is much more in line with late ‘90s geek-rock like Barenaked Ladies, Harvey Danger, Moxy Fruvous, and, well, Odelay-era Beck.
Opening track and lead single “Bootss” is driven by a pair of dissonant guitar chords in the verses, which is followed by a louder, chugging guitar chorus. In the background, off-kilter “Ooo-ooo” vocals sit aside guitar digressions while a mid-song bridge finds the guitars piling up against a suddenly busy drumbeat. It’s simultaneously weird and catchy, which ends up being a summation of what Tetherball’s mastermind Steve Voss is doing throughout the album.
“Vegetarian” is anchored by a bouncy guitar riff and buoyed by a simple but locked-in rhythm section accompaniment. Lyrically, the song seems to be about Wile E. Coyote’s futile quest to catch the Roadrunner. The memorable part is the driving chorus where Voss declares, “But you’re never gonna track ‘em down / Never get the legacy / Never gonna fuck him up / Never gonna have it your way” before concluding that he should “Just be a vegetarian / Become a vegetarian”. This song also features an oddball bridge where the tempo slows way down and gradually builds back to the bedrock riff. It’s a very successful tactic in keeping a less than three-minute song from getting repetitive.
Most of the upbeat songs on Whimsy follow a similar pattern. “Don Jamble (Sundown)” adds a prominent acoustic guitar to the mix, which makes the song feel about a half-step away from a country track. “Boulderado” goes farther down this road, with drumstick-clicking joining a bluesy guitar lead. Musically, the oddball here is “Spring Chicken”, which has a syncopated guitar riff and horns to give the whole track a twisted carnival feeling. “Absinthe” is possibly the most straightforward rocker on the album, which makes its “I’m either drunk and hallucinating or stuck in a bizarre sci-fi situation” lyrics stand out that much more.
The quieter side of Tetherball finds Voss making some interesting choices. “Puzzles” puts the focus on the simple guitar playing and jazzy trumpet solos. “Hometown” lets Voss’ subdued vocals and lyrics take the focus. Despite that focus, it’s hard to tell if he’s discussing returning to his hometown as an adult and not recognizing his town anymore or if he’s singing from the perspective of a self-aware android trying to fit in with humans. Co-songwriter and guest vocalist Joshua Vaught sings “Gilded Rings”, a genuine folk song with only quiet percussion and soft horns to buttress the vocals and acoustic guitar.
Whimsy is a genuinely entertaining and engaging listen. Voss seems to have an ear for slightly off-kilter guitar riffs, and the skill to build catchy pop-rock songs around them. Even when he follows an established rock and roll pattern, like on album closer “Timely Doctor”, which starts quiet and gradually gets louder before quieting down again, his weird lyrics and ear for jazz-inflected textures keep the song from being boring. Although much of the album does sound like a throwback to the late ‘90s, Voss exudes so much confidence that Whimsy feels immediate and fresh.