By taking smoothness to shocking new heights in just three records, New York rock trio Ivy has evolved from an indie rock group into something quite different. The band’s first record, Realistic, was largely a skillful homage to synthpop as performed by a guitar band and mixed by alternaproducer du jour Andy Wallace. Then suddenly with 1997’s Apartment Life, guitarist Andy Chase seized control of production and the band found its niche. Sound became as important as songwriting, even inseparable from it. Though less overtly poppy, this new approach yielded better commercial results. When two songs from Apartment Life, “This Is the Day” and “I’ve Got a Feeling”, were featured in the film There’s Something About Mary, Ivy began to get noticed.
Long Distance is Ivy’s first record since Apartment Life and it’s being released on an independent label. Clearly the big boys upstairs didn’t think Ivy was mainstream enough. And they do have a point. For a band that few people would term strange or experimental, Ivy has very few peers. Perhaps the only band currently mining similar territory is Stereolab. Both bands have French, female lead singers, but mutual francophonic femininity isn’t the only thing they have in common. Like Stereolab, Ivy uses eighties pop as a reference point, then moves beyond it, neither disguising nor fetishizing its influences. But unlike Stereolab, Ivy chooses to work almost exclusively within the context of traditional rock songs. While Stereolab creates art rock or dance music, Ivy is, at least nominally, a rock band. The result is rock songs that aren’t what they appear to be. At first listen, the melodies on Long Distance sound too simplistic to sustain an entire song — and yet they do. The secret is that the melodies and chords are only half the story. The aura the songs create is as important as the songs themselves. Like Stereolab, Ivy is largely about sound; they just hide it better.
But if sound is the key to Ivy, describing the Ivy Sound is tricky. Above all, it’s polished. Warm, full and lush too. “At once futuristic and nostalgic” is pretentious, but also true. Yet within the enigmatic whole, there are individual strengths that are essential. Bassist Adam Schlesinger, who also has a successful career as half of Fountains of Wayne and writes songs for movies like Josie and the Pussycats and That Thing You Do, is the band’s secret weapon. His bass lines are understated and mixed low but provide much of the music’s melodic tension. Singer Dominique Durand sings flat and stylish, doing as much by not doing as by doing. The other roles in the band are less clear. On the one hand, Ivy must be a collaborative effort because it’s doubtful that someone as talented as Schlesinger doesn’t lend a hand in the studio. On the other hand, a band as focused as Ivy needs a driving force because only the bizarro passion of a lone visionary could account for such devotion to a particular sound. Andy Chase is clearly the man with the vision, but much of the credit is shared with his talented band mates.
Viewed alone, Long Distance is a solid pop record. But as part of the evolution of Ivy, it represents something more: another step in an experiment to determine just how sonically wistful pop music can be. Long Distance isn’t an improvement on or a step back from Apartment Life so much as a restatement of purpose. Whether Ivy can continue the experiment much longer — and whether it should — remains to be seen. For now, fans can embrace Long Distance as the latest and greatest expression of one band’s affection for it’s own smoothed-out muse. No one else is doing music like this. And if they were, they wouldn’t be doing it this well.