The word “jangle” gets thrown around quite a bit in reference to music. Check out allmusic.com; the site has a page dedicated jangle pop, as demonstrated by early R.E.M. and Let’s Active, defined as the “American post-punk movement of the mid-’80s that marked a return to the chiming guitars and pop melodies of the ’60s.” The use of “jangle” in conjunction with music goes back to the 12-string strum of Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, who were the pioneers of the folk-rock/Beatles mélange that a decade later become known as jangle pop. So what’s the big deal? The use of the word is all wrong, another in a long line of misappropriated words used all the time in the English language.
Jangle means a harsh, discordant sound, and brother, there ain’t nothing harsh or discordant about the sounds emanating from Peter Buck’s Fender. Jingle pop would be a more apt name for the genre, but there’s no point in fighting city hall in this case. If jangly is the way I have to describe the sound emanating from my CD speakers when the Melodie Group’s Updownaround, so be it.
Yes, the Melodie Group is to thank for this outburst, but take a listen to their debut album and let me know if anything but the word “jangle” comes to mind. The group — which is hardly a group at all, as it relies almost exclusively on the Windmills’ Roy Thirlwall, who writes/sings/performs every song — draws heavily from its indie pop forefathers on its debut album, but never reaches the same heights of the bands it emulates.
Updownaround is a charming, pleasant set of 10 stripped-down, personal songs clocking in at just under 27 minutes. The tracks are short and sweet, almost to a fault. The foundation of each song is simple enough: Clean, jangly (natch) guitar, synth swooshes, drum machine loops, and different variations of Thirlwall’s monotone but engaging vocals. But in this case, foundation is the whole structure, as Thirlwall’s compositions vary little in terms of form.
“Everybody Loves You” kicks off the proceedings and serves as an apt starting place for the album. Thirlwall’s vocals are up front and center, as they are throughout most of the album. In this case, Thirlwall is a dead-ringer for former Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, which would be disturbing if not for the whimsical nature of the lyrics. It’s hard to imagine the depressive Curtis singing “We are all naked under our clothes” unless quickly followed by “I’m ashamed of what my body looks like”.
Thirlwall’s voice changes throughout, sometimes bringing back the Curtis inflections but often forging his own distinct variation. “When Loves Come Along” evokes another famed monotone, both in vocal inflection and songwriting. The track would not sound out of place on the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs collection, with its jaunty pace and Stephen Merritt-influenced deadpan. It’s a simple love song for a first crush, fleeting but deeply felt.
“Bathtub Full of Water” brings the R.E.M. fetish to the fore, as Thirlwall’s guitar sounds like Buck’s, circa Reckoning. “I Do Not Not Love You” speeds up the languid, easy pace most of the album floats along by, with a revved up drum machine and use of the most underrated of all rhythmic tools, the handclap (with the added bonus of a personal favorite language trick, the double negative).
The centerpiece of the album is “Hairdresser in the Sky”, which overcomes some strange lyrics (“Rain washed my hair / The wind blew it dry / It was the hairdresser in the sky”) by infusing the song with an overwhelming melancholy beauty. Reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Nice Dream”, “Hairdresser in the Sky” aptly fuses synth swooshes with plaintive guitar work to build a sense of epic sadness, a depth of emotion not available in any of the other songs.
In the final evaluation of Updownaround, the lack of emotional depth is the album’s downfall. With such an intimate conception and delivery, one expects Thirlwall to utter great truths, or at least come up with some witty lyrics to make the listener forget how un-engaging the jangly, low-key music can be. There’s plenty to like, but very little to love.