Michel Gondry's favorite band is probably not going to be your favorite anytime soon.
There are some people in life that you just don’t question -- and Michel Gondry is one of those people. Ranking right up there with Spike Jonze and Mark Romanek as one of the greatest music video directors of all time, the man has managed to do everything from iconic Bjork clips (“Army of Me”, for one), documentary films (Dave Chapelle’s Block Party) and even Oscar-winning, life-changing cinema (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Regarding the latter, one should not underestimate the value of music in the film. Gondry -- who has a background in music – collaborated with never-wrong composer Jon Brion for the film's delicate and fragile score, and used songs by ELO, Beck and the Polyphonic Spree in the process. Yet, most oddly, there was one very unknown band that made not just one, but two contributions to the eclectic soundtrack: Anaheim, CA’s own Willowz. The songs in question, the pop-rock “Something” and acoustically introspective “I Wonder”, were certainly different (albeit amateurish in comparison to the high-gloss pop that surrounded them), and struck their own unique tones within such a highly emotional movie. Gondry has directed for them a bit since then, and now comes the release of their first post-Sunshine full-length, Chautauqua.
Unfortunately, this becomes the first time when we truly question Gondry’s judgment.
The Willowz fit into the modern garage-revival aesthetic that most critics also classify the Von Bondies and early White Stripes’ albums under. Yet the Willowz' style is slightly more acoustic, usually with just a drop more country thrown in to mix things up. Singer Richie James March’s voice -- in almost every song -- sounds like it was recorded on a low-quality tape-recorder. That may have been effective when “Something” was heard in Eternal Sunshine, but the novelty wears thin over the course of a 14-track full-length album. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Chautauqua is the fact that the band is melodically tight, but their melodies absolutely do not stick. “Yesterday’s Lost” uses around three chords in typical classic rock fashion, but never has the use of three chords been so drawn-out and dull. To add to the irritation, March and occasional vocalist Jessica Reynoza are simply not singers. This is why March frequently talk-sings his way through just about every song on the album. Perhaps his voice wouldn’t be such an issue, however, if the band weren't so melodically challenged. Opener “Beware” might have well been titled for listeners, as the blues-rock jam they lurch into has all the right moves but not the right form: it’s a song that is forgotten the second the disc skips over to track two.
The band veers back and forth between trying to be indie-rock troubadours and trying to sound like Tom Petty demo recordings. “Big Knob” falls into the latter category, hitting upon a stream of lyrical clichés (“stop the runnin’ around” has been used in better contexts) without presenting much of a unique spin on anything. With “Jubilee”, however, they sound like a Tom Petty demo that actually could be a great song with the entire Heartbreakers playing on it. Much of the album’s frustration doesn’t stem from the fact that the band is making terrible songs; it comes from the knowledge that they have the potential to make better ones. No one knows what was going through their minds when they were making the screeching chorus for “Lonesome Gods”, but it’s obvious that it should have been placed elsewhere in the set, because it doesn’t make much of a closing statement for Chautauqua.
Amidst all this, however, there are some moments of true melodic genius. Though “Once in a While” may not have much of a lyrical purpose ("The things I say / the things I do / once in a while / you know it’s true"), it features a simple, understated and quite lovely acoustic melody that the band brilliantly leashes in at just slightly over the 2-minute mark. The quiet-loud dynamics of “All I Need” make the impact of the hook on the chorus all the more amazing, and -- perhaps best of all -- the piano/strings ballad “Evil Son” feels like a true epic, utilizing monster chord changes (on just an acoustic, no less) before switching into an awesome electric guitar-jam half-way through (and yes, this would have made a much better closer).
Ultimately, Chautauqua is hard to recommend, but it gives insight into a band that’s maturing in terms of melodies and ambition with equal footing. This could lead the group into creating something truly great, but it certainly isn’t this.