Stephen Becker writes perfect chamber-pop songs. Maybe a little too perfect.
On the final song of Le Concorde's Universe and Villa, frontman and songwriter Stephen Becker proclaims, "I Hate Rock and Roll". The song's distorted vocals, big drums, soaring chorus, and glam keyboards bring to mind the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Sidewalking", and the only reason you have to believe that Becker hates rock and roll is that he keeps repeating it throughout.
But that's just one song here. Based on the other 12 tracks, you'd have every right to believe that Becker does, in fact, hate rock and roll, at least in its current incarnation. Instead, he cherishes that intricately layered college rock sound of the '80s that made bands like the Lilac Time, Prefab Sprout and Aztec Camera dorm room staples. Well, at least for the art and English majors. At Wesleyan. There's no denying that Becker knows his way around a pop tune, providing ample hooks and textures, filling every nook and cranny with some sort of flourish.
But ultimately, this proves to be what holds the album back, making it merely enjoyable rather than excellent. Becker received a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and you can hear a very academic approach in his songwriting. It's almost as if every song is a mini-thesis, crafted with such specific attention to detail that it becomes overbearing. When you get to the chorus, you can be sure that some layered background vocals will come in right on cue. When you get to the second verse, you can be sure that there will be a new keyboard effect to differentiate it from the first verse. Sure, each time it's a little something different, but you still know it's going to be there. In just about the exact opposite way, the songs become almost as predictable as three-chord pop/punk. Clearly, Becker intended for the album to sound like this, for every space to be filled. But the foundations of these songs -- the easy melodies, Becker's gentle voice and his smart-if-a-bit-wordy lyrics -- are strong enough that they don't always need to be augmented.
The sequencing of the record is one of its strongest assets. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it's not. Becker is obviously someone who has an exact vision for every aspect of his work, and that is evident in the order in which the songs are presented. The album begins with four sprightly chamber pop numbers, which are so inoffensive and agreeable that even Maroon 5 moms would find nothing to object to. Becker's songwriting is far more nuanced that anything those multi-platinum lite-funksters conjure up, and the lyrics aren't quite as cheery as the musical accompaniment would lead you to believe (much of the record deals with Becker's recent divorce), but there's nothing about these songs that wouldn't make them a perfect fit for in-store play at Starbucks or Cosi. There's another possible backhanded compliment, but it only serves to show just how pleasant he makes the piano-bounce of "Parallel Lives" and the La's-meets-Postal Service sound of "Little Stabs at Happiness".
The next section is decidedly less upbeat, and offers some of the album's least complicated songs. "Taxi in the Snow" achieves the wintry feeling the lyrics convey, with Becker accompanied by minimal, echo-y keyboard effects. His vocals are more low-key as well, as he never reaches for his not-quite-there falsetto, which plagues more than a few songs here. It's the album's most restrained song and shows that sometimes less can be more.
The album then segues into a batch of songs that recall more recent lush popsters. "I Will Go to My Grave Wanting You to Love Me" is a good approximation of what an Elliott Smith album on Le Grand Magistery might have sounded like, while "In the Morning" again channels Ben Gibbard, and signals the start of section of songs that have a heavier reliance on guitar. "It's The Minor Chords That Kill You" could almost be called a rocker, but besides the regrettable final track, that's as heavy as Le Concorde gets. Still, the album flows nicely from start to finish, and depending on what kind of mood you find yourself in, it's easy enough to cue up the songs the fit. Universe and Villa doesn't quite hold up over the course of its 13 tracks and sometimes offers so much as to obscure the actual songs. But as far as criticisms for a debut album go, it could be a whole lot worse.