The word “cute” is rich with connotations but empty of real aesthetic weight. A critic can bandy the word about only when all other possibilities are exhausted. But an aesthetics of cute would expand the already well-trampled and rusted barbed-wire boundaries of criticism, if only because so many cute artists win our highbrow affections while pumping the blood into our lowbrow zones. “Cute” has a variety of forms: ironic cute (doe-eyed baby with a meat cleaver), political cute (the Housemartins chirping gospel singalongs for Karl Marx), priapic cute (the Backstreet Boys), intellectual cute (everything by They Might Be Giants), and lo-fi cute (dirty innocence recollected in phony tranquility). But despite all my theorizing and cogitating about cuteness, I can’t put my finger on why the cute new Bikeride record Morning Macumba rubs me the wrong way. Lead singer Tony Carbone has a cute little voice, and all their songs have button-down hooks, complete with tootling horns, burping moogs, and singalong choruses. In fact, there’s even an unreservedly brilliant tune in here (“Fakin’ Amnesia”). But on the whole I have to give their new post-lo-fi crypto-Brazilian sound a qualified thumbs-down. It’s too dainty, too feckless, not foxy or groovy or even original. And the album’s title trivializes one of Brazil’s spookiest and most resonant religions, so I’m guessing that the ugly American strikes again.
Bikeride has carved its little indie niche doing the lo-fi Beach-Boys thing since the late ’90s. Some of the tracks on their previous albums 37 Secrets I Only Told America (1999) and Summer Winners, Winter Losers (2000) are pretty ace, though damn if I can remember them now. They were like bowls of Cocoa Puffs compared with the asparagus omelettes served up by Beulah and the Apples in Stereo. Still, Bikeride had charm. They were cute. And so, after three long years of traveling (to Brazil, go figure) and studio diddling, Morning Macumba hits the racks. The album begins with a quaint little instrumental which is for some reason called “Radio Ougadougou”. It’s vaguely street Brazilian in its muddled brevity (flutes, maracas, bells), and I have no idea why they named it after the capitol of Burkina Faso. Certainly these Long Beach bohos aren’t trying to convey some sort of cross-Atlantic musical fusion. I don’t think. But the production is crystal-clear and the sound is full to bursting. This ain’t lo-fi anymore.
Anyway, that forgettable ditty rolls right into the album’s one truly great tune, “Fakin’ Amnesia”. The theme is righteous: as I hear it, an ex-buddy turned his back on a circle of friends, but now wants back in (“What do you want now? / ‘Cause nothing could please ya. / Fakin’ amnesia / Fakin’ amnesia”). Busy and loud, with singalong hooks and buzzing moogs, this is the kind of tune that bands like Bikeride are made for. And the best part is how they integrate the bitter near-fascist chant “Hey! Hey!” into the frosty pop convection. It’s one of the year’s best songs, really, and a shame that none of the other tracks even approach it.
The album quickly turns letheward with “Knees on Top”, which tries to drug you with Brazilian exotica (“Knees on top / Brazilian music / We won’t stop / Until we use it”), and fails utterly. It doesn’t sound too Brazilian to me, and when they tell us we’re gonna dream and wake up smiling, I immediately suspect a trap. And the trap is “Norwegia”, a track that has a woozy lead-in tumbling into a nice simple guitar hook. But friend, that there hook’s a decoy: the song detonates into one of the most annoying choruses I’ve ever heard. “Na-nana na, na, na” it goes, at top volume, and it ruins the song for good.
It’s all downhill from there, if you can believe it. “Catch That Spark” tries to be bossa nova, with breathy flute, toy piano, and stoic pace. But no matter how cute and vaporous Tony Carbone tries to whisper, he’ll never be Astrud Gilberto. “Whispering Winds” sounds like a sugar-high sitcom theme that crashed into an embankment somewhere on the way to the studio. Lines like “this never happened to a schoolboy” (or is that “the school board”?) and “I was a punk in junior high” are more irritating than revealing, and the cutesy sound makes me want to sit Tony in a high chair and spoon him his dinner. Next in the queue, “The Americans in Rome” is just weird. With heavy guitar and thumping drums at the outset, you can bob your head to their evocation of the Move’s best moments. But then the chorus pops up: “We are Catholic rich kids”. I’m not sure if they’re being sarcastic (I don’t think so), but that sort of class-baiting doesn’t cut any weight with this critic.
Things improve a bit with the mellow and inconsequential “Moonracing”, and the rocking homage “Small Faces”. Closers “Sleepyhead” and “Lemonade” are tolerable little jazz-rock-moog-SoCal ditties too, but it’s hard to remember ’em after the album ends. That’s what happens when you stir too many influences into an amorphous pot: tastes pretty bland. Lucky Americans who buy the album can get too secret extra tracks: “Bunny” and “Western Australia”. One is an instrumental (zzzzzzzzzzz), and the other a goofball tribute to klezmer or “When I’m 64” or something. At least it’s mildly sexy. In their new hi-fi mode, Bikeride are like Housemartins without politics, Undertones without a boner, Shoes without heels. They’ve obviously got some enthusiasm for their sunshine-pop influences, but their gift for hooks is definitely limited. One truly great song on an album that’s been three years in the making? Something went wrong along the way. Obviously Tony Carbone isn’t a Bob-Pollard type song factory (some of the hooks here sound truly desperate), but he could do better by ditching the cute act. Me, I’m often a sucker for cute, but only the kind that flaunts its experience while boasting a lengthy resume of phony innocence. Stuff like Bootsy Collins or Atom & His Package or Moldy Peaches. Bikeride flaunts its innocence while trying to cobble together some phony experience (presumably by traveling to Brazil and Rome). In other words, they got it all backwards.