If anything bad could be said for the advent of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, it might be that their ability to write their own material knocked Tin Pan Alley right out of business. Sure, it's never been the craze to mourn the days when Carole King, Neil Diamond, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, and Mort Shuman knocked out three-minute pop jewels side by side, but as each year's load of singer-songwriters haul out their tuneless, two-chord dirges about their unfaithful friends and their ennui and their menstrual cycles, I find myself enjoying "Locomotion" that much more. And dressing up personal tedium in distorted guitars and heavy drums does nothing to disguise the lack of craft in so much of today's popular music, but craft has been on the run ever since it was deemed an impediment to pure personal expression. Considering the banality and/or embarrassing confessions in what most rock stars have to express, I'll take as many impediments as possible, thanks very much.
New York foursome Kid Casanova, greeting the world with their self-titled debut, may not agree wholeheartedly with that last sentence, but they do care enough about molding their songs into shapely pop forms that they seem like a much-needed blast of fresh air, or rather, a blast of old-fashioned air. Kid Casanova loads up on harmonies and melodies and then disburses them in short, sweet shots. Their outsized charm comes primarily from Kevin O'Sullivan's vocals, sounding as they do like a smoother version of Pete Shelley or solo-era Jonathan Richman. The rhythm section is rudimentary but appropriate, and the two guitars, wrangled by O'Sullivan and Kana Philip, are the second-best thing about Kid Casanova. Neither guitarist will melt your face with a solo, but their decision to be tasteful and tuneful will do something better, namely, warm your heart. And I would be criminally remiss in my duties as an arbiter of taste if I didn't back up my dump truck of praise to Kid Casanova's doorstep and empty it out for their avoidance of the done-to-death distortion pedal. Ever since Nevermind, it's been increasingly hard to find guitarists with ideas for pumping up the excitement during the chorus that go beyond stepping on their Big Muff, so again, Kid Casanova is retro in the best possible way.
Complaints? Yes, there are a few worth mentioning. Number one is that their lyrics ask for more attention than they're worth. Though no lines in particular jump out and poke the ol' cringe button, Kid Casanova still has an air of missing the cleverness mark. Then again, perhaps their shortage in this department for the best, since more than enough lyricists sharing Kid Casanova's interest in vague 20-something dissatisfaction are glutting the world with smug wit. Gripe number two goes out to the aforementioned rhythm section, and while I am on the record as calling them "appropriate" (check for yourself, just one paragraph north of here), it would still have been a boon for all concerned to have something other than the lead vocals or the lead guitar grab some attention. It's typical of pop bands to enforce the standard rock hierarchy on their instruments, but by being typical, Kid Casanova misses out on an opportunity to be something better than that. This sentence segues into the last and most troubling complaint -- Kid Casanova's lack of a truly killer single. The trick of a superior pop album is consistently high songwriting with a trip or two into the stratosphere. Big Star's Radio City did this with "September Gurls." The Flamin' Groovies' Shake Some Action did this with the title track. Kid Casanova comes close a few times in its mere eight songs, but a couple of anonymous acoustic numbers pull downwards instead of up, and the record spins to a stop without a home run. Still, those are high expectations, and Kid Casanova's ability to raise them to such a level with their first try should be taken as a clear victory. Better things are sure to come soon for this bunch, and what they've got in the meantime offers more than enough charisma, craft, and outright fun to hold us over until they hop up to that next rung on the ladder.