The Actual Tigers: Gravelled and Green

The Actual Tigers
Gravelled and Green
Nettwerk America

Smooth, picked electric guitars, a gentle, simple bass drum pattern, a warm wash of subtle synthesizers, catchy, well-crafted vocals — “Yardwork in November” epitomizes all that is great about the Actual Tigers’ debut record, Gravelled and Green. The record’s opener thumps along, accented by its gorgeous harmonies, acoustic guitars, and a well-placed, full-bellied horn section. Vocalist/songwriter Tim Seely, in both voice and songwriting, combines all the catchiness and relaxed languor of Paul Simon in this quieter, more contemplative version of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”.

This Seattle-based quintet have created a tight, formidable pop record, hinting at influences as diverse as Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, Wilco, Buffalo Tom, Ben Folds Five, and G Love and Special Sauce. Beatle-esque harmonies and chord changes abound in a varied mixture of slide guitars, electric pianos, horns, accordions, mellotrons, and exotic percussion rhythms.

Seely flexes his melodic muscles most impressively on the quiet, acoustic-based tracks like “Time and Space” and “Halfway House”. Gentle, impressively complex pop vignettes, these are the tracks that McCartney and Lennon never wrote (but should have) for the White Album. “Time and Space”, a world-weary hymn to all to emotional suffering, is highlighted by lilting, crisp Beach Boys-like harmonies, scaling up and twisting around Seely’s gravelly (but green?) vocal. In a great piece of pop poetry, Seely tops off his litany of troubles and pains with the sarcastic overstatement of a chorus lyric, “I could write a book about time and space” (and, by implication, everything else as well). Any real sorrow or sarcasm, however, is softened and deflected by the lush Pet Sounds backdrop. Like all great pop, the real goal is not to work through your own problems, but rather to immortalize them in perfect, succinct lines and ditties.

“Halfway House”, like “Time and Space”, discusses isolation and paranoia in completely innocuous, non-threatening terms, couching any conflict in unforgettable hooks and sweet harmonies. “I used to dream normal dreams about normal people”, sings Seely, “but now I only dream about myself”. In this song’s cute, witty circles, Seely’s lyrics delightfully capture the solipsism and loneliness of the sensitive outsider, too enamored of his own suffering to do anything about it.

The flipside of these quiet, moody songwriting showcases are the funky pop of such tracks like “Standing By”, “Bad Day”, and “Bourgeois Blues”. The inventive, rollicking jams shows the Actual Tigers as accomplished, impressive musicians as drummer Diarmuid Cullen runs jazz circles around John Low’s rockabilly piano. On songs like “Yardwork in November”, “Testimony”, and “On a Roll”, this musicianship takes the form of delightful Paul Simon-like world-music explorations, featuring exotic rhythms and cut-up, driving acoustic guitar work. On the album’s final two tracks, “Shades of Brown” and “The One That Got Away”, the Actual Tigers are joined by a joyous, exuberant, drunken horn section. Guitar solos and bluesy piano frills twist around the braying trombones and tubas in a regular old hootenanny of hedonism.

The Actual Tigers’ only problem is avoiding becoming just like any other pop act. While there are flashes of real originality and vision on this record, more often than not the Tigers are just really good imitators, whether it be of Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, G Love and Special Sauce, or Ben Folds Five. There is undeniable songwriting talent in Seely’s wonderfully coy and enjoyable pop songs and the rhythm section has created a tight, strange fusion of funky pop with world-music beats.

Nonetheless, little on this record sounds revolutionary or even all that new. While tracks like “Time and Space” are lyrically compelling and fresh, others, like “Standing By” and “Shades of Brown”, are mere balderdash, such as this illuminating snippet from the former: “I’ll be standing by, standing by, standing by, just don’t forget to come on home”. While this lyrical vapidity fits with their more contemporary influences, it would do them some good to really consider the magic of McCartney or Brian Wilson. While their lyrics could be kitschy or fluffy, they were also glimpses into a world of pop perfection, something bigger, a collective dream of peace and innocence. Personal fears and desires were translated into overarching tropes of universal importance. The Actual Tigers are equipped with the tools — the only question is whether they can use their pop arsenal and know-how to make their music more than mere “pop”.