Chicago chamber-pop group indulges its love for the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian with mixed results.
"Oh my God, my life / Is so fucked up", Scotland Yard Gospel Choir frontman Elia Einhorn whines on "Something's Happening", backed by a lush, Belle and Sebastian-esque arrangement. And just like that, he ably sums up the preoccupations that drive his band's third full-length, …And the Horse You Rode in On. Throughout the course of the album, Einhorn seems intent on walking the same tightrope that Morrissey nimbly inhabits, toeing the line between earnest self-pity and tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation. The trouble is that Einhorn's delivery -- his borderline histrionic vocals and overwrought lyrics -- often skews too far toward the former with little humor to serve as counterbalance.
Take the album's opening lines, for instance, from leading track "Stop": "I hope that you catch / Syphilis and die alone / No, don't call me / Because I won't answer". Einhorn seems to be reaching for the misanthropic wit of Smiths classics like "Unhappy Birthday" but the end result here -- backed by jangly minor chords and a weepy violin lead -- has more in common with contemporary emo-pop. "One Night Stand" mines similar territory, tearfully extending an invitation that will most surely be declined. "I Pretend She's You", meanwhile, initially sounds like a welcome change of pace, utilizing punk rock dynamics to inject a bit of energy into the proceedings. And yet, with repetitively morose lyrics like "Christ I'm a fucking mess", the track eventually gets to feel as tiresome as the songs that proceeded it.
Luckily, the album unexpectedly turns a corner midway through, with the arresting "Praying is a Heartache". Featuring guitarist Mary Ralph on vocals, the song feels sincere in a way that the album's first half doesn't, with Ralph delivering a hushed, sober performance over a delicate, fingerpicked guitar line, a shuffling drum beat, and a generous backdrop of strings. When Ralph coos, "It's your best friend sleeping with your woman / It's your woman closing your front door / Right in your face", the heartache feels genuine, rather than forced.
From here on out, things start to look up. "Save Your Breath" recalls early Magnetic Fields, with guitarist Ethan Adelsman adopting a detached monotone that suits the song's new wavey synths quite well. "Castles of Wales" finds the band owning up to its Anglophilia with satisfying results, using that familiar jangle-pop template as the vehicle for a tale of chip shops and old wives watching television "with the telly text on" -- there's even a shout of "God save the Queen!" midway through. Title track "…And the Horse You Rode in On" continues this trend with a rollicking folk-punk stomp that does the Mekons proud.
Ultimately, …And the Horse You Rode in On stands as a flawed, if somewhat redeemable, record. There's at least an EP's worth of worthy material to be found here, if not the seed for a solid full-length. On those tracks where Einhorn tones down his more melodramatic tendencies -- not to mention the songs where other band members take a turn at the mic -- the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir show real promise. As for the other tracks, well, let's just say that when you make Morrissey look downright restrained, you know it's probably time to rein it in a bit.