To properly appreciate Marshmallow Coast and the work of Andy Gonzalez, it's probably necessary to make mention of the Elephant 6 collective, and Of Montreal in particular. But it's a historical footnote at most, guaranteed to establish Gonzalez with a fair amount of indie cache, yet not really indicative of his music. Or at least, not the direction his music has turned now that Marshmallow Coast is maturing into its own.
True, Gonzalez first cut his teeth working with Kevin Barnes's much-lauded outfit, and his work with Of Montreal (and admiration for Barnes) was an obvious marker on the earliest Marshmallow Coast releases, particularly Seniors and Juniors and Marshmallow Coasting. This is hardly surprising considering the famed incestuous relationships of Elephant 6 bands, and the fact that Barnes and other Of Montreal mates formed the line-up on these earlier works. But since releasing 2002's Ride the Lightning, Gonzalez seems to have found the individual drive to make Marshmallow Coast more than just a band that swaps out frontmen.
For Antistar, Gonzalez seems to have finally found his own "little hideaway alone" ("Sunrise") and in the process has turned in a wholly understated but incredibly engaging collection of music. With the exception of continued percussion work from Eric Harris, who appeared on Ride the Lightning in addition to his work with Circulatory System, Olivia Tremor Control, and other Elephant 6 acts, Gonzalez has stepped outside the collective fold and pared down the band (and his music) considerably. The two primary additions to the line-up include the flute work of Gonzalez's now-fiancé Sara Kirkpatrick and multi-instrumental and production assistance from Jason Nesmith (Nancy Boy and Casper Fandango, among others, and son of famed Monkee Mike Nesmith). While Gonzalez's relationship with Kirkpatick seems to have infused his music with a new gentleness, his collaboration with Nesmith rivals his prior work with Barnes, and Nesmith is certainly to be credited for a deft touch in Antistar's production.
As with the band's previous work, Antistar continues Marshmallow Coast's tradition of songs about daily life with an odd twist, although here the reflections are almost always love songs of a sort. As a songwriter, Gonzalez has always mined the (dreaded word) quirky trail that his contemporaries have forged with charm and élan, but Antistar seems to have reined in this impulse a bit as well. The tracks here are deceptively straightforward, in fact, the glimmer of wry wit slipping in more through the delivery and tone than the lyrics themselves. Gonzalez has matured as a storywriter, and the breezy pop that accompanies Antistar's tales serves to anchor this maturity.
Right off the bat, "Springtime's Here" lets you know that Antistar is going to be a different listen than the psychedelic-touched power pop you might expect. An ultra-laid-back tune, Gonzalez's gently plucked guitar and Kirkpatrick's lilting flute melodies evoke impressions of '70s AM radio more than bubblegum pop. In fact, Gonzalez throws in a nod to that schmaltziest of Simon and Garfunkle songs, "Feeling Groovy", intoning "Slow down, you're movin' too fast / You've got to make this fantasy last". But it's a silly, joking moment, as the heart of the song is the question of a lusting paramour, asking the object of their affection whether or not the feeling is mutual. Paired against the endearingly wistful line, "'Cuz if I have to look at the girls in the magazine one more time / I think I will die", it's charming and disarming all at once. All in all, it sounds like it could be one of the more recent tracks from XTC's Colin Moulding, and that's no small feat, really.
The same endearingly forlorn-but-undeterred optimism carries over into "She Could" and "Pink Underwear". "She Could" is the antithesis of emo, a nearly perfect song of dejection and retribution, with Gonzalez starting out with the clever, "She goes out with anyone she sees / She's gone out with everyone but me / What kind of man must I be?", lamenting until a new girl comes to town and the object of his heart shifts, concluding, "She can sleep with anyone she sees / She can sleep with anyone but me / Cause I found a love that's fully concrete and true / And those thoughts are through". But it's "Pink Underwear" that really stands out the most. Similarly themed, the song itself is a strange little tale of a man who falls in love with a woman he meets dancing in her underwear on a Mexican beach, but it's the music that truly shines. Aided by the guest bongos/congas contribution from Derek Dibono and Kirkpatrick's flute, "Pink Underwear" melds the mellow pop vibe of "Springtime's Here" to Gonzalez's love of Brazilian rhythms. Already known for incorporating touches of Tropicalia found in the likes of Os Mutantes and Caetano Veloso, the wildness of that sound is tamed a bit on "Pink Underwear", but the result is a sublimely catchy, soft pop tune that satisfies completely.
That's just the first three songs on the album. I could go on and on, probably robbing the music of what makes it engaging in the process. The space-pop-meets-easy listening of "Swift Little Mercury", the smooth jazz ease of "Kinda True", the muted power-pop of "Day and Night" -- they all have elements that will appeal to different things in different listeners, but gathered together they show Marshmallow Coast to be a band that's hardening into diamonds rather than pushing at thin boundaries. Antistar stands out as much for being anti-hip as it does for being beautiful, but there's nothing whatsoever ironic about this music. At times it comes with the earnest deliberation of chamber pop, but if you have any appreciation for pure pop at all, you'll have to fight not to fall in love with Antistar.
Or, perhaps it makes more sense to put it like this: if you throw Marshmallow Coast's new disc into your CD player when you go to pick up your friends on a Saturday night, as soon as they get in the car they're probably going to look at you like you're crazy and say, "What the hell is this? But for the next few hours, you're going to have the hooks from "Chinese Lady", the album's closer, stuck in your head and you won't mind a bit. Antistar takes some patience, and maybe the right mood on the initial listen. It's not a record for rocking out. But if mellow doesn't turn your stomach instinctively, then you'll find every repeated listen to this disc a rewarding experience.