It’s too bad this album wasn’t released in May. The first single, “Make You Mine”, is a great summer song, with its combination of sweet lyrics, smooth vocal harmonies, a catchy beat that alternates between piano and guitar, and that let-the-wind-blow-your-hair-while-you-don’t-care feeling. “All the boys and all the pretty girls / Summertime, I’m gonna make you mine,” the band sings. “All the fun to shine on everyone / Summertime, I’m gonna make you mine.” The song is hard to get out of your head after you’ve heard it. Though three members of Family of the Year come from the East Coast (the brother combination Joseph and Sebastian Keefe, and James Buckey), the band is currently based in Los Angeles, and they appear to have bought into the mythic breeziness spun from the SoCal dream factory. Their sound is part beach, part party.
If there’s a lightness and groove and beautiful melodies driving these songs, a sadness underlies the lyrics of many of them. Perhaps the band is the family of the year which only the members know is dysfunctional behind the scenes. “Facepaint”, “Carry Me”, “Blue Jean Girl”, and “Dead Poets” are story songs about characters who don’t seem like the songwriters, and all of these characters struggle in their lives. I like these songs, but mostly as pleasant sounding pop that you don’t need to know the words to in order to appreciate. It might be even better not to listen carefully — within songs, the responses to the characters’ problems seem a bit facile, the kind of response or advice that a young teen might offer up — but the advice sure comes with delicious hooks and harmonies. Keyboardist Christina Schroeter sings “The Dance”, which has lyrics that represents well a 9th grade girl’s view of the world and a sound that would represent that simplistic, yearning time: “Boys will be boys / Girls will be girls / Make me a part of your world / Oh how I wish you would ask me to dance / Hold me so slowly with both of your hands.” The first-person songs that seem to reflect more directly the songwriter’s sentiments are stronger, particularly “May I Miss You” and “Give a Little”.
Family of the Year closes with a song, “Hey Kid”, that exemplifies the album’s themes. After saying to “the kid” that “everybody’s worried about you” because he keeps lying, the narrator reveals that his empathy comes from experience: “I can relate / I did it in my day / I know that it sucks she’s gone / I know the pain will never go away / Can’t turn it off and on.” Family of the Year seems most comfortable writing songs that show young people sorting out identity and relationships in young life. It’s a surprise to get that vibe here, three years after the band’s breakthrough album of 2012, Loma Vista, which featured such coming-of-age songs. That album’s “Hero” — a song used prominently in one of the great movies of the last five years, Boyhood — became one of those infrequent acoustic anthems that represent the viewpoint of a young Everyman: “And we can whisper things / Secrets from our American dreams.” The new album still has joyful harmonies interwoven into catchy, occasionally rocking acoustic indie-pop, but there’s nothing like “Hero” here.