Third time's the charm?
The first release from the Chapel Hill-based Mayflies USA was actually a self-titled EP that emerged on Clancy Records in 1997, but, for all practical purposes, the band really first caught the eye of discerning music fans with Summertown, their 1999 full-length debut. Summertown was produced, mixed, and engineered by former dB Chris Stamey. Born in Chapel Hill, Stamey certainly possessed the sort of resumé, not only being behind the boards but behind the microphone that made him a perfect fit for the group's sound, a mixture of the Beatles, Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, and the Posies. Yet, in interviews to promote the disc (or, at least, in the one I did with them for Amplifier Magazine), the band was already concerned about the possible stigma of having a connection to some sort of perceived "North Carolina power pop scene". As such, at the time, they were uncertain as to whether they'd work with Stamey again.
Apparently, they must've decided that there were more checks in the "pro" column, since, when The Pity List arrived in records stores the following year, Stamey's name once again appeared in the same capacity. A few years have passed since then, however, and, with Walking in a Straight Line, the Mayflies USA apparently decided to bite the bullet and cut Stamey loose. He's nowhere to be found on the release. In his place, the band has brought in Keith Cleversley. As it turns out, he's a great choice for the band, having worked not only with the aforementioned Posies but also with the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and Zumpano. The result of this collaboration has produced an album that finds the Mayflies still bringing their jangle-pop sensibilities to the table, but, with Cleversley's assistance, things feel a bit darker, full of less of a same-old, same-old sound from track to track.
Some have complained that Stamey's production was a bit unimaginative; that certainly isn't the case with Cleversley, who fuzzes up the guitars here and there (such as on "The Greatest Thing") and switches the instrumental emphasis away from just the jangle. "Can't Stop Watching", for instance, starts off fully propelled by its percussion, then flows along with the aid of guitar and a fair amount of keyboard.
The harmonies throughout Walking in a Straight Line are stellar, but, then, that's one thing that's been a hallmark throughout the Mayflies' recorded output. "Malaysia" is definitely a highlight, with its hummable melody ably aided by chiming guitar work; the same goes for "123". In a sense, it's easy to see why the Mayflies USA were petrified at the thought of being lumped into the Carolina power pop scene, but, at the same time, it isn't surprising that folks tried to throw them there. Listening to Summertown and The Pity List, it's no wonder that the band found themselves comfortably sharing bills with the Connells.
There's nothing to be ashamed about in their back catalog, but, listening to Walking in a Straight Line, the band's evolution into having a more expansive sound shows that working with Chris Stamey was a means to an end. They recorded two solid albums of quality pop music and began to cement their reputation and fan base outside of North Carolina. Having Stamey's instant name recognition attached to them certainly did more to help them than it did to hurt them. After two albums with him, however, it was definitely time for the band to spread their creative wings with someone else.
Sure, they'd carved a nice, comfortable niche in which they could've hung out for as many albums as they wanted, but these guys clearly have aspirations that involve more than just re-writing Byrds and Big Star songs for the rest of their career.
Walking in a Straight Line is unquestionably the strongest album the Mayflies USA have put out in their career, and it certainly bodes well for the future.