Or: How to Make An Album Starring 28 Musicians Sound As If It Were Made By Just One or Two.
Darren Solomon has a lot of friends. Ostensibly the father of the brainchild that is Science for Girls, the musician and button-presser enlists no less than twenty-seven collaborators -- instrumentalists, vocalists, percussionists, and songwriters -- to fill out the debut record of his project of the same name. Amongst the musical paraphernalia at his disposal are piano, guitars, flugelhorn, saxophone, trombone, numerous borrowed vocal chords and, to quote the liner notes, "electronic whatnot". So the album is sure to be a veritable, colourful exposition of sound, full of choral grandeur; alluring harmonies; tight-knit, intricate, instrumental arrangements; and an expansive array of percussion. Right?
Alas, wrong. For Science for Girls is a simple, laid-back, pretty record of pared-down electronica, infused with the occasional foray into jazzy territory. While obviously this in itself need not be a bad thing, the vast array of creative ability brought in to flesh out the tunes in Solomon's head simply fail to add much meat to them at all, and as such the album -- a disappointingly insubstantial, unenergetic, and dispassionate affair -- can be counted as a missed opportunity.
Perhaps it is simply an inevitable corollary of its collaborative nature that Science for Girls contains so little sentiment or enthusiasm. With a different vocalist stepping before the mic for each of the ten tracks, and only one of them (Renee Cologne on "Violets") lending a hand in constructing their delivered words, it's easy to imagine that few approached the task as they would their own material, or with the sincerity and passion so essential to music and that usually comes naturally to self-penning songsters.
But of course, there has been no end of smash hits performed by artists without so much as a single note's-worth of contribution in their writing, so laying the blame in this area is perhaps unjust. Indeed, often the material Solomon provides simply isn't enough to capture the heart or the mind, or even sometimes the ear. Sure, it's rarely anything less than nice, but then in art nice is such an ugly word, and unfortunately Science for Girls struggles to be anything more than that. When opener "14 Days" couples Bronwen Exter's voice of melting caramel with some simple acoustic fingerpicking, it's neatly charming, but it never becomes anything more substantial, remaining a picture that doesn't change at the introduction of some uninspired synth and a mechanical beat upon the minute-mark. "Northern Lights", meanwhile, is beige all over, combining Boots Ottstad's smooth croon with insipid keyboards, and though things take a turn for the better when a guitar enters the fray and so injects Science for Girls with its first pangs of life, the track is far from rescued.
What's more, lyrically, the record can be so syrupy as to be sickly sweet. By far the worst culprit is "Australia", where Paul Brill's misjudged ode to Antipodean life ("I wanna live in Australia / I wanna do like the Aussies do / Eat some shrimp off the barbecue / Take a ride on a kangaroo") aims for escapism and lands instead at cringeworthy fawning. But even on less glaringly obsequious offerings, there is an inoffensiveness that rankles. Whether it is "Northern Lights"'s invitation to share in the eponymous phenomenon or the plodding, passive introspection of "Pattern Recognition", it's difficult to imagine Science for Girls swinging for any lyrical big-hitters. So when "14 Days" speaks of stars, it is almost inevitable that one of them is ultimately wetly personified ("Even a star like you can be looking for something"). Hell, even "Peace Heart"'s lightweight R&B love spurning comes wrapped in the proviso the unrequited subject has "peace, heart and dreams of the way things could be". It's a harsh criticism, but Solomon, musically and lyrically, is just too nice for his own good.
It's no surprise then, that Science for Girls's most interesting, and ultimately satisfying, cuts are the ones where Solomon extends an olive branch to experimentation. "Violets", for instance, at last exploits the expansive sonic arsenal on offer in combining Cologne's glamourous, dramatic glitz with an exuberant beat, a brass section, and multi-faceted keys that veer from swathes of synth to a bouncy underpinning lilt before morphing into a faux-string section. Likewise, "Sleepwatching", probably the most successful of the ten cuts here, employs Hugh Wilson's uncomplicated but effective vocal in accompaniment to a makeshift choir, sax, and guitar, backed up by crackling beats and the ebbing of Solomon's keys. More, for Science is Girls at least, actually really is more.
There are two sides to Science is Girls, then. And perhaps Solomon should be commended for being able to veer from simplistic elegy to the Australian sun to an experimental sonic realisation of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 96" in the space of just a few minutes. Yet for majority of this record -- for too much of this record -- he takes the easy route. Life does have its simple pleasures, true, but simplicity in itself is not virtue enough to make the merely pretty, the nice, be significant or enduring, more than an attractive facade. And that, unfortunately, is what Science for Girls amounts to -- an album of simple, cute electronica that, as its better moments are testimony, could have been much more.