The Flat Five have been described as “a pop vocal supergroup” and while the band may be lesser known outside of their Chicago home, its members are all recognizable beyond the confines of that city’s fertile music scene. Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough, and Alex Hall have played and toured with a number of well-known acts, including the New Pornographers, the Decemberists, Iron & Wine, NRBQ, Andrew Bird, Robbie Fulks, and Alejandro Escovado. Add to that the songwriting chops of another Chicago mainstay, Chris Ligon, and this is a group ready for their national close up.
Depending on who one talks to It’s a World of Love and Hope has been five or more years in the making, its seeds first sown in early, informal collaborations between Hogan and Scott Ligon. Other fellow musicians became members of the informal collective, connecting through a shared love of harmony, odd covers, and song styles outside the realm of their primary gigs. A couple annual holiday performances sold out, so the group started playing quarterly shows that turned into standing room only events, which led to month-long residencies at assorted Chicago venues, and now an album of 12 Chris Ligon-penned songs that recall an other musical and cultural era.
Listening to It’s a World of Love and Hope brings numerous impressions and as many questions. The most immediate impression is of the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”-era of the 1970s, when the Super Bowl halftime show featured the forced positivity of Up With People and bands like the Free Association made music that sounded like it came from some technicolor planet where war and traffic jams had not yet been invented. The Flat Five have, on occasion, been known to perform that earlier band’s crowd-pleasing “Kites Are Fun!” on stage.
Indeed, the dominant vibe throughout It’s a World of Love and Hope is the very optimism suggested by the album’s title. “Florida” is pure bubblegum and butterflies: happy campfire singing arranged around chiming guitars and a spry backbeat leading to a “Chugga chugga woo woo” bridge. “Buglight” ticks along with group scat-singing and a wry narrative that recalls the New Christy Minstrels. “I Could Fall in Love With You” is an upbeat heartbreak song where the singer’s obsessive memories of his former lover’s colorful costumes leaves any new potential lover little other option than arriving naked. Then there’s the endearing oddness of “Blue Kazoo” which makes ample use of its titular instrument. The overwhelming positivity and uplift in these songs leaves the listener pondering whether this is a direct assault on our current state of hyper-negativity, and, of course, whether this is all done with tongue firmly in cheek.
There are subversive winks throughout. There are a couple wry drug-references sprinkled through the album’s selections, as if to answer the potential accusation that anyone this happy must be stoned. The cool jazz, beatnik vibe of “You’re Still Joe” finds its subject being encouraged to “take a little trip”. The singer of “Bottom Buck” complains that his paramour “said I was a jerk for smoking pot, oh!” in a song that evokes the Greenwich Village coffee house scene. And then there’s “Birmingham”, where the singer recalls with fondness how on a long trip to Tennessee, “we pulled off the road so I could pee / And you stood guard so no one else could see.” The singer follows this with a defense of having hit her lover’s mother (“she had it coming”). This is not quite what the directors of Up With People would advocate.
Maddeningly catchy, the primary question of It’s a World of Love and Hope is: Is this a lasting work or a novelty? Does the album’s cheeky humor work as well in the car stereo as it strikes from the stage? I have to admit that my first impressions were skeptical, but the damn thing is so well-played from start to finish, so varied in style, and it flows by so effortlessly that, I have to conclude that yes, this is an album that listeners will return to for more than ironic reasons. Sure, the songs here seem custom made to be fit into a party mix for a refreshing WTF moment, but there’s also the performer’s sincere love of musicianship and harmony at the album’s core. That can’t be faked. “Almond Grove” is a great pop song in any context, and when the children’s laughter breaks through towards the end of “She’s Only Five”, it conveys pure joy.
The Flat Five have made a record that evokes the innocence of another era while acknowledging the artifice of such nostalgia. At the end of the day, it’s the music that matters, and this is really good stuff. Let go and ride along with the album’s pleasant vibe. You won’t be disappointed.