Over the course of a dozen-plus albums, the Ben Jones-led collective Constant Smiles have navigated ambient/shoegaze experiments with 2020’s Control, droney chamber pop with 2019’s John Waters, and cold-wave atmospherics a la Black Marble and Drab Majesty with 2018’s Lost. Having self-released many of their projects, the band now offer Paragons under the auspices of Brooklyn-based Sacred Bones. The result is a surprisingly realized yet naggingly conventional project replete with wistful pop tunes and ghostly sonics.
“Run to Stay” launches with a mid-tempo and strummy rhythm, Jones’s vocal more suavely treated and prominently placed than on previous sets, courtesy of producer Ben Greenberg. Melodically and texturally, the track draws as much from FM staples such as Al Stewart’s 1976 hit “Year of the Cat”, produced by Alan Parsons, as 2000s shimmer-pop pioneers Real Estate and Mmoss, including Doug Tuttle’s solo work.
“Hope for Tomorrow” shows Constant Smiles embracing a more overtly folk orientation, guitars chugging in the background. Jones navigates a languid melody, his vocals effectively layered and panned. With “The Things I Miss”, they craft a rhythmically ebullient yet still lavishly melancholy soundscape reminiscent of the Clientele‘s debut, Suburban Light, Jones’s drawly vocal accented by lambent synths and understated strings.
With “Daisy Table for Three”, Constant Smiles reiterate their psych-folk affinities, a lazy melody draped over Matthew Addison’s metronomic drum part. Jones’s voice is softened and burnished via strategically applied chorus, reverb, and echo effects, bringing to mind Wild Pink’s meticulously constructed A Billion Little Lights.
“Shame” highlights Jones’ vocal versatility and Greenberg’s ear for variation, featuring comparatively dry back-ups and harmonies that contrast with the lushly treated lead vocal. On “Where Am I Now?” Addison’s brushy drum part undergirds a mix of expansive guitars and synths, yielding one of the album’s more distinct soundscapes. Jones’ voice segues from baritone to tenor, confident to tremulous. Greenberg’s minimal yet melodic guitar solo toward the end of the track offers a hint of the more adventurous stylistics used in previous outings and is one of Paragons’ more engaging instrumental performances.
Listeners familiar with Constant Smiles’ mutative oeuvre will find Paragons intriguing, mostly for the band’s chameleonic adoption of familiar pop templates and production approaches. While many of their previous ventures, however, have shown Jones and company successfully recasting various genres and subgenres, with Paragons they fall short of distinguishing themselves from their sources. Though Constant Smiles have clearly absorbed the indie-pop/dream-pop playbook – offering what may be their most accessible album – they haven’t significantly reconfigured or reinterpreted it.