Many up-and-coming bands are so focused on image-with-a-capital-I that there’s not even room for the slightest deviation. Otherwise, said image is in near-fatal jeopardy. Albums from these bands, as a result, are one image-conscious song after another, an exercise not so much in creating a mood as it is in hammering a formula into the ground. Fortunately, Mohair seem entirely unconcerned with any one image, and very much concerned with showing off their many musical faces, all of which are beautiful. They go for broke on their U.S. debut, Small Talk, and this is really hard not to admire. It’s risky for a new band to take their songs in so many directions, because it makes them harder to pin down and label. It’s especially hard in the case of Mohair, when all the risks taken happen to pay off.
Small Talk is sequenced for maximum impact. More specifically, it’s sequenced with the kind of care rarely seen since the onset of the digital era: five songs per “side”, with each side having its own personality. The first half contains mostly straight-ahead pop songs; the second is a bit quirkier. What ties the whole thing together is a uniformly strong sense of pop structures, a gleeful willingness to subvert those very structures, and the fact that Mohair always sound like they’re enjoying themselves.
Guitarist and lead singer Tom Billington exudes personality from the get-go, and doesn’t let up. His voice is full of character, and a perfect fit for the lyrics. He sounds something like a cross between Brian Wilson and Pete Townshend: he combines the former’s ability to skillfully sweep from low notes to high within the space of a single word, and the latter’s endearingly imperfect voice. In a way, Billington’s voice holds this record together as much as any of the musical factors. His accent is nothing short of charming, and his phrasing is oh-so-slightly off-kilter. Lyrics like “When my luck runs out / I’ll be as busy as a bee / At home watching daytime TV / In my sole company” (from “End of the Line”) are pretty great on their own, but Billington turns them into an aural masterpiece: “bee” isn’t sung so much as it’s forced from the singer’s mouth, and the second half of “TV” rises to a sudden falsetto, an appropriately showy touch over a piano that can’t decide whether to be ominous or jaunty.
Wait. Piano? Yes, piano! There’s a lot of it here, and that’s not the only way Mohair bust out of the guitar-bass-(dol)drums. Multiple songs feature additional keyboards, various horns (never sections, just solos, which is pretty cool)… and “Ella May” is carried along by what sounds like a ukelele. Hardly the traditional rock-band instrumentation, but completely appropriate for a band that’s much more pop than rock.
The leadoff track, “Talk of the Town”, is an immaculate pop production in every sense. In just over three minutes, we’re treated to a seemingly impossible series of rhythmic twists and turns, and a mix that pushes different instruments to the forefront for a few moments at a time, creating an ever-evolving, unpredictable musical experience. The most jarring moment comes about halfway through the song. All signs point to an imminent guitar solo, but just when it seems to be getting off the ground, the music halts, making way for a wordless a cappella section straight out of “Heroes and Villains”- or “Good Vibrations”-era Beach Boys. The music gradually comes back in and the song proceeds along to a glorious, ringing conclusion, full of Mohair’s always excellent vocal harmonies and instrumental prowess. The a cappella bit is entirely unnecessary, but it makes the song, and that’s what makes Mohair such an exhilirating band. Rather than serve up rote verse-chorus-verse songs, they go out on a limb. Better yet, they make us appreciate the fact that they took us along.
What follows isn’t more of the same in any traditional sense. “Stranded (In the Middle of Nowhere)” sounds for all the world like Maroon 5 might sound were they both British and good. “Ella May” belongs in the same camp as some of Paul McCartney’s White Album contributions and David Bowie’s “Kooks”. Most surprising, perhaps, is “LA Song”, which is almost as good as “Talk of the Town” but sounds like a totally different band. Using the nifty old trick of making the beginning of the song sound like crackling vinyl, it’s a driving song with a rousing, inviting chorus (“Come on, let’s take a ride into the night / I promise when you’re with me / You’ll feel alright”), bright keyboards, and an actual guitar solo. It somehow manages to evoke California without really sounding like any of the 1970s California rock bands, even though it would sound perfectly comfortable it that sort of company. Plus it has the following killer couplet: “Where every town is a country song title / And every yard is a mile”. (I heard “yard” as “yacht” the first couple times, which would’ve been a fine lyric as well.) It’s a very warm song, perfect for cruising with the windows down and the smiles up.
It’s not hard to imagine Mohair becoming one of those great bands known for being equally skilled as album artists and crafters of classic pop singles. They’ve been together for years, and Small Talk hits our shores as the work of a tight, energetic and FUN band — one that we should look forward to hearing for years to come.