Their major label debut, Better Can't Make Your Life Better, should have made Lilys into alternative pop icons. It's a great CD, sounding like something the Kinks would have made had Ray Davies embraced psychedelia instead of taking up charter membership in the Village Green Preservation Society. From start to finish, the record has an electric vitality and ebullience that was largely lacking in the grunge-laden mid-'90s.
Clearly, the band's beatification didn't happen. Their follow-up, the equally British-invasion inspired The 3-Way was quietly released into obscurity. Lilys and their label parted ways. Aside from a few stray tracks, band leader Kurt Heasley and his revolving troupe of musicians have remained silent since.
Precollection marks Lilys' full-length return to an independent label, and their first new album in four years. It's a major departure from their previous two '60s-influenced pop records, but as those familiar with the band know, Kurt Heasley has a restless muse. Before embracing the sounds of the Kinks and the Small Faces, Lilys made My Bloody Valentine-like squalls of feedback, and Stereolab-esqe experimental pop. With Precollection, Heasley's interest has turned to late-'80s UK indie-rock.
Prior to this album, Heasley was very successful at taking his influences and making their sound his own. That's not the case here. Things begin disappointingly with the title-track, a moderately successful attempt at a Smiths' song, minus Johnny Marr's remarkable guitar. It's a genuine shock to hear a band that produced exceptionally lively material turning out a song with such obviously earnest intentions. As the next track, the elegiac and overlong "Melusina", demonstrates, Lilys' playfulness is gone. Although the spare acoustic arrangement displays Heasley's newfound seriousness, it leaves a thin song sounding thinner.
Elsewhere, "Mystery School Assembly" offers up a dirge over an oddly recorded percussion, its sound bleeding badly into the red, leaving a crashing, distorted noise. At one point, Heasley sings, "Something something something something", as though he's fumbling for half-remembered lyrics, before resolving the line: "Something isn't there". A listener might be inclined to agree, especially after hearing "Meditations on Speed". On this track, Heasley's preening vocals are buried in the mix as the band plays a song that could be mistaken for a sloppy cover of the Dandy Warhol's "Bohemian Like You", minus the hooks.
It's not all bleak. "Will My Lord Be Gardening" features a delicate melody and an uplifting chorus. Mike Musmanno's production works against the song, pushing the unimaginatively played drums and bass too high in the mix, but it doesn't negate the tune's pleasures. "Dunes" is an equally strong song, and its evocation of walking hand in hand on a sandy beach offers a rare moment of sunshine in an uncharacteristically dark record.
With its uncomfortable marriage of '60s melodicism, '80s angularity, and '90s slacker production, along with Kurt Heasley's recently acquired solemnity, Precollection is a rare misstep for Lilys. Hopefully, it's the work of a band shedding its former incarnation on its way to something equally brilliant, rather than an album by a group that's just decided to settle for less.