Miniature Tigers try out romantic bedroom indie-pop while rejuvenating their penchant for strange sounds.
Miniature Tigers mastermind Charlie Brand has been in a relationship with actress Mae Whitman for a while now, and things seem to be going great. How do I know this? Well, there are interviews from both Brand and Whitman out there that say so, but for the purposes of this review, Exhibit A is the new Miniature Tigers record. I Dreamt I Was a Cowboy is a loose concept album about being in love, complete with sappy ballads, angst that it’s all going to fall apart, and even the concept album staple—a dream sequence.
Two things are striking about this album from the get-go. There’s a warmth and intimacy to opener “My Girl Forever” that sticks around for the length of the album. Brand, it turns out, is pretty good at producing indie-pop that sounds honestly romantic. That warmth makes a cheesy sentiment like, “You will be my friend forever / You will be my girlfriend” sound lovely. The other thing is the song’s opening electric guitar riff, which sounds slightly out of tune. That riff runs through the entire song and eventually normalizes even though it never ends up being quite in tune. It’s a weird element and a portent that Brand is going to re-embrace the off-kilter sounds that dominated Miniature Tigers’ early records.
“Dreaming” is a relaxed, slightly Caribbean-styled song dominated by a bassline played on a bass marimba and a repeating high register xylophone-esque note run. Both are cool effects that give the song a nice groove. This leads right into “I Dreamt I Was a Cowboy”, where Whitman takes the lead vocals. Her breathy, quiet singing fits in snugly with the song’s languid vibe. “I Dreamt I Was a Cowboy” also works as a transition point on the album. Afterward, the songs are more idiosyncratic and often more interesting.
“Wish It Was Now” is a ‘60s-style folk song that hits all the right buttons. A pile of acoustic guitars is accompanied by a jangling tambourine while Brand sings possibly the best melody on the album. The multi-layered vocals on the chorus, a simple recitation of “wish it was now”, are beautiful, and it all meshes together into a sublime moment. “Wheat” features a prominent pedal steel guitar and some nicely placed percussion rattles, giving the song a light Texas country feel.
Then there’s “Nobody Else”, which features an out-of-nowhere sample of obscure ‘60s singer Millie Small with her lovely high-pitched squeak of a voice. The song opens with Small singing “What am I living for / If not for you, baby!”, then uses that “baby!” as the song’s anchor and hype man, punctuating many of Brand’s lines. The song itself is a catchy, piano-based ballad with a warm ‘70s soft rock bridge, but the sample sells it. It’s so effective that once you’ve heard the song a few times, you want to hear her “baby!” at the end of every line, not just occasionally.
The record ends with two quiet songs, either of which would make a solid closer, but they represent two different moods. “I Never Want Our Love to End” is sparsely arranged with great harmonies, but the overwhelming feeling is melancholy as Brand sings about his insecurities. “I’m Awake Now” uses both chirpy and lush synths to provide a sunny, relaxed, early morning feel. Lyrically, though, the song starts out depressed as Brand contemplates the fact that he’s so damn happy in bed with his new girl but that they’re both going to have to leave, and it will be over. But the song ends with him deciding that he’s going to do whatever it takes to make what’s apparently a one-night stand into a relationship.
This kind of unabashed romanticism shouldn’t really work. And in the past, Miniature Tigers’ attempts at straight-up love songs haven’t always been successful. But Brand’s honesty goes a long way here, and his willingness to use unusual sounds cuts through the cheese to make the album just a bit weird. I Dreamt I Was a Cowboy ends up effectively splitting the difference between the band’s early days of twee sounds with strange lyrics and their middle period of big hooks but not very distinctive sounds.