You may not realize it until "Playground Instructor", the final track of the Lovethugs' debut, but the band are a lounge act. Jim Faulty's vocals nuzzle up to the lines like a middle-aged gigolo does to his cognac or a willing blonde, whichever's warmer. The psychy guitars are slowed down the a lethargic jangle, cymbal crashes tossed in for dramatic but haphazard effect, like drummer Mudman is nodding off and reflexively hitting something when he comes to. There's a southern-fried guitar solo near the song's end which is deliciously, and confusingly, paradoxical -- at once seeming totally appropriate and misplaced. The result is theater par excellance, understated and tarted up in equal measure, an all-over-the-place, rambling thing that couldn't be more mixed up if they tried.
Thing is, this song seems far more like a happy accident than the product of intentional manipulation. Playground Instructors is not an album of "Playground Instructor"s -- and Lovethugs seem more a band of lucky (and indeed, sometimes very lucky) gamblers than skilled players of the rock band game. You see, they're not a lounge act, or a psychedelic act, or a new wave act, or a pop act -- part of the reason they've been compared to everyone from Echo and the Bunnymen to Cream, from Hendrix to the Kinks. They're fairly good musicians with a flair for tuneful melodies and either a wealth of disparate influences or some clashing creative visions. Either way, it seems like the Lovethugs haven't quite decided who they are.
That's not the say that Playground Instructors doesn't have its moments. Like that of many other Scandinavian groups, their music pops with an almost eerie cheer, boundlessly happy even in its more sober moments. "A Little Bit of Something", the opening track, sounds like lo-fi Britpop: messy drums taking a leading roll instead of stark percussion playing backup, doubled vocals instead of carousing harmonies. It's cheeky, darling, and infectious nonetheless. James Farley sings as if he doesn't want to finish the note he's belting at the moment, letting the note fall off with a languid disaffection. Often, the bass lines are so low it seems they may as well not even have a bassist, until you tune in and hear Carl Martin plunking along on lines far more involved than necessary -- in a good way. Like wearing your sexiest outfit when you know you're only going to the grocery store.
This complete and total adherence to musical styles while blatantly disregarding their key elements sometimes works to great effect -- like the baggy lounge of "Playground Instructor", the buzzy mod of "Bringing it Down", or the reined-in camp of "A Little Bit of Something" or "Drawing the Curtains" -- but this tack also sometimes falls flat. Despite the ferocious guitar muck which slops all over "Know Where to Go", Farley never manages to match that energy with his singing. (Until "Welcome to My Castle", the second to last track, I wondered whether he could make a sound that even slightly resembled a scream.) "What's the Season?", simply put, bores. "You Are My Bird" bobbles with late '60s So-Cal sound before its peculiarly un-bright chorus. And I simply won't say anything about "I Must Walk Alone" except: where did that come from?
Of course, there's nothing wrong with pulling from a bevy of influences, as most of the best bands do this. But with the Lovethugs, the motley backlog seems more the result of an unclear forward vision than a kaleidoscopic rearview mirror. There's some good stuff here, for sure, but it inevitably will be one of those albums you rarely listen to all the way through.