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Moonbabies: The Orange Billboard

Jon Langmead


The Orange Billboard

Label: Hidden Agenda
US Release Date: 2004-01-13
UK Release Date: Available as import

There was a time when it felt like Moonbabies could save me. That, or at least renew my faith in carefully crafted, studio-conscious pop. The song was "Forever Changes Nothing Now" off of the Standing on the Roof/ Filtering the Daylight EP, a piece of heartbreak that was both supremely confident and supremely worth getting excited over. It was too much to ask of them, I know, so it's not their fault that I went a little cold in the time between that release and this, their second full-length. There are just too many would-be studio maestros propped up on their own self-importance muddying the water and that's made it tough to get turned on when something really fresh comes along. Deep down, though, I know that's not really being honest, because the truth is that it's impossible not to be turned on when you come across the real thing. That's how it was, that sense of pure elevation, when I first played "Forever Changes Nothing Now", and though the reaction isn't exactly the same with the entirety of The Orange Billboard, there are moments of undeniable excitement that make it a considerably engaging listen.

Proving that they're still relentlessly ambitious, Ola Frick and Carina Johansson keep moving forward towards the creation of the great pop album that they practically convince you is a foregone conclusion for them. It's a heavy burden -- and certainly not automatic -- but the pair comes across as lifers with the talent and nerve to persevere. Already fairly well known in Sweden, their standing in America figures to grow as this album winds its way around college radio. They wrote, recorded, and mixed it with just a few additional performers (the two played a wide variety of instruments and got help only on some of the drums, strings, and a little bass). Because they spent so much time on their own in the studio, things can't help but be a bit self-indulgent (but only so far as the recording itself goes, never the singing or playing) and this might be harder to stomach if you didn't feel that it's adding up to something bigger. Their skill in the studio is one of the things that will ultimately separate them from lesser bands with similar pop ambitions -- that and, what is ultimately the more important of the two, their seemingly easy knack for melodies that are readily familiar and that stay with you. As a result, it's easy to forgive them if they fall into the seductive trap of helping themselves a bit too much to studio trickery. The hope is that by overdoing it at points, they'll learn for themselves what works and what doesn't.

The album's songwriting is more clearly focused than on June and Novas and they wander considerably less musically. "Crime O' the Moon" is about as glorious of a pure pop song as you're likely to find all year. Even if its ultimate insight is just that "We're here to fall", you can't give yourself over to it's melody (a revved-up "Our House"?) and walk away thinking that they really believe that, especially when just two lines earlier Frick sings, "All the docs and the pros can't make you stronger than I am". He's right, and when Frick and Johansson really flex their muscles they can leave you breathless. They bounce around between dance floor singles ("Sun A.M."), bedroom laments ("Summer Kids Go", "You Know How it Is", and "Over My Head"), and psych noodles ("Jets" and "The Orange Billboard") and tie them all together under their increasingly unique flag of dream pop.

At almost 50 minutes, the album wouldn't really have suffered if it was shorter by a song or two, with the mid-album instrumental "Jets" sticking out as the most recklessly expendable. Getting to the point may not always be the band's strongest point (over half of the songs are well over four minutes) but their central thesis is solid and their skills sturdy. They layer on the tracks to the point that their songs should be bloated and bursting, but instead they just keep stretching to accommodate the piles of instrumentation being thrown at them. Amazingly, they make it all fit. Their singing and arranging skills are more than strong enough to put the songs across with fewer flourishes, but it's still exciting to listen to their imaginations running wild. The best songs here ("Summer Kids Go", "Crime O' the Moon", bits of "The Orange Billboard", "Forever Changes Nothing Now") make good on the warmth promised by the melodies. Moonbabies are busily cutting out their own space from the dream pop fabric and the closer that they get to Earth the more snuggly they wrap you up in it. If the field is a bit crowded and the glut sometimes enough to make you close your ears, they make pricking them up and paying attention a worthwhile chance to take.

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