Prickly summer music for those who like their guitar pop incisive and lean.
While its title may allude to more sprawling means of travel, Sally Crewe & the Sudden Moves' Shortly After Take-Off is close-range pop, the stuff that drowns out the thunderous din of passing traffic and lends a soundtrack to the unpredictable gusts of wind plummeting through the moon roof. Taut guitars that lurch and twitch, chord progressions that hang sharp lefts like Joe Jacksonian hunches, prominent oohs and ahhs: this is prickly summer music for those who like it incisive and lean. Crewe's trimmed her power trio sound down to an even more economical frame than 2003's swift Drive It Like You Stole It. Shortly After Take-Off feels like it was cut live in the studio, nearly drained of all embellishments, relying on the band to burn a straight line through the 33-minute runtime.
Crewe's all about exuberant pop hooks that burrow like nasty viruses, and Shortly After Take-Off is full of them. "Good Morning, Aston Martin" teases out its chorus before spiraling upwards like it knows the quickest route to bliss. "Pane of Glass" is incessantly likeable, the wordless vowels of its chorus inciting spontaneous living room dances and phantom handclaps. "(Don't Let Me) Talk About the Weather" thrusts its big chords around like they actually weigh something, each shift a palpable blow. And the bittersweet harmonies of "Airport Song", cribbed from the church of Wilson, are liable to provoke unsolicited swoons. Get ready to annoy your friends with your tone-deaf attempts to sing along as this stuff's infectious.
Like Drive It, Shortly After Take-Off finds comfort transposing a touch-and-go emotional canvas to cars and the sensation of movement. Possible epiphanies take hold at intersections ("Pane of Glass"), impending flights harbor indecision ("Airport Song"), and feelings are susceptible to hit-and-runs ("My Heart's a Motorway"). "We'll go for a drive / It makes me feel whole again," Crewe implores on "Little Rock Star", and she seems to always be moving like this, from place to place and moment to moment, her songs the burnt rubber scarring the road to prove that an idea existed and was documented.
With its abundant effervescence and itinerant imagery, Shortly After Take-Off zips by fast, no doubt about it, but the ride is often overshadowed by its presentation. Crewe's assembled group of musicians (including Phil Prime on drums and Rhodri Marsden on bass) don't always collectively adhere to the songs in the way that Spoon's Britt Daniel and Jim Eno did on Drive It. When the performances don't conform to the strict standards dictated by Crewe's tight songwriting, they disclose an uncomfortable relationship with the material. The guitars, so crucial to the record's sound, have a tendency to stumble off the rhythm's path. And taking into account an exception here or there, the record's production just sounds a bit bloodless. Shortly After Take-Off has the tendency to resonate like a quickly recorded batch of demos, not a thoroughly constructed set; the thin, frustratingly elemental sound is more like primer than paint, and it can do the songs a disservice by misrepresenting them.
Since the release of Drive It, Crewe has relocated from the UK to Austin, Texas. The move hasn't Americanized her sound; she's still writing songs that seem to intrepidly challenge figureheads like Graham Parker and Squeeze at their own game. Though the hesitant riff of the opener "Casino" suggests Exile-era Liz Phair, the chorus' lift, prodded by one banged-out piano note, is all lilting new wave strut. The song itself is a tough sell: a verse that feels fragmented, a chorus that seems to abruptly end before it even gets started. It's the kind of song that begs for reexamination by implying there's something more to gain than what's audible on the surface. In fact, most of Shortly After Take-Off's songs could be eligible for similar scrutiny, but their underfed presentation never quite convinces.