Keen Dreams‘ The Second Body begins like an album that’s in no hurry to win you over. They know they’ll get there eventually. For an album so full of beautifully intertwined musicianship and bright, complex pop hooks, it’s interesting that they begin the album with an ethereal, spacey instrumental. “Herons” is a shimmering overture filled with sustained bits of feedback, lazy trumpet notes, heavily reverberating guitar strumming – it almost sounds like the band are warming up their gear and tuning up, but it’s too musical, too calculated for that.
In fact, the gentle teasing continues briefly into the next song, “Pasted”, before the band crashes into a warm, engaging dream-pop vibe. Although Keen Dreams are a trio – James Weber Jr. on guitar and vocals, Shana Applewhite on bass and vocals, and Eric Martinez on drums – they’re ably assisted by a small army on this stunning debut. Produced by Shannon Fields (Leverage Models, Stars Like Fleas) on his home turf of upstate New York, the band are also joined by other musicians on harmonica, pedal steel, percussion, vocals, and various horns and woodwinds. They don’t prop up the band – Keen Dreams are a powerful force unto themselves – but they provide gorgeous texture that adds to the dreamlike atmosphere.
Fields is a perfect choice for a producer here. His work with Leverage Models is reminiscent of the more cerebral, oblique aspects of 1980s art-pop – Roxy Music, Talk Talk, China Crisis – and he brings that sensibility out in Keen Dreams. You hear it in songs like “Pinks & Reds” as the band go back and forth between loud, almost anthemic, guitar-dominated passages and softer moments anchored beautifully by Applewhite’s chugging basslines. It’s in the more pop-oriented (but no less sophisticated) single “Big Gulps”, a four-minute pocket symphony that sounds like it tumbled out of a pastel-tinted boom box tuned to your favorite college radio station circa 1985.
Even when Keen Dreams accelerate into an almost punk-like fury on “Porchlite”, the cacophony is tempered by memorable hooks, layers of keyboards, and Byrds-like guitar chiming. Likewise, the relentless drive of “Unsubscribe” isn’t aimless flailing – Weber’s vocals exude a fiery intensity, and the whole band click into a groove that begs for a swaying dance floor. The penchant for instrumental mood-setting continues at about the halfway mark with “Ducks”, a more experimental, atonal cousin to “Herons”.
One of the many highlights on The Second Body is the album’s closer, “Immediate Tonight”, a gentle, dreamlike ballad with Weber joined on vocals by Alena Spanger (Leverage Models, Tiny Hazard, Field Guides). With help from Jon Natchez of the War on Drugs on saxophone, Keen Dreams crafts a lush mid-tempo number that’s perhaps less a love song and more a plea for peace and harmony. “Let’s get immediate tonight,” Weber and Spanger sing, with a mix of passion and desperation.
The Second Body may be sonically reminiscent of decades past, but it’s too smart and sophisticated to be anything close to cheap nostalgia. If you’re going to compare Keen Dreams to ‘80s synthpop – and I’m sure plenty of people already are – what sets them apart from many of the lesser bands of that era is an uncanny ability to fuse pop with depth, intelligence, and passion. I’m already waiting for the next album.