The opening notes are sharp, angular guitar chords, rough, electric, and immediately grabbing the ear. Wait... what? But then that piano melody kicks in, the song swells, and what could have passed for any post-punk-of-the-moment tune grows into a luxurious bit of guitar-fuelled power pop. And if there was any lingering doubt, Conor Deasy's voice slinks in and, ah, yes, this is the Thrills.
If "Tell Me Something I Don't Know", the first track from the Thrills' sophomore disc momentarily throws you for a curve, that's because Let's Bottle Bohemia doesn't sound like So Much for the City on the surface. The twangy folksiness that the banjo afforded their first disc has been replaced by something far more grandiose, and Let's Bottle Bohemia seems calculated to be the next big push for the Irish band's claim to the big pop revival throne. Where Oasis, for example, was stadium pop's exhumation of the Beatles, Deasy's glistening outfit seemed like the trans-Atlantic answer to California revivalism, nestling alongside such acts as Beachwood Sparks and Cub Country with ease. But where So Much for the City stunned with its Gram Parsons meets Brian Wilson song-craft, Let's Bottle Bohemia seems like a skip forward in time by about a decade. While the rich, Wilson-esque harmonies are still in evidence, the musical drive and energy here more readily recalls the stadium-sized compositions of '70s Elton John, rollicking in keys and organs and orchestral accompaniment, plus bombastic guitar chords and a muscular swagger.
Ballsy, gutsy, lush, and constantly teetering on the edge of overblown, Lets Bottle Bohemia features the kind of rich production that is consistently whined about by lo-fi aesthetes and critics. And, oh my, is it glossy! And yet... isn't this the kind of polished chrome sheen that this brand of pop music craves? While the songs here may lose some of the warmth evident on So Much for the City, they gain a certain amount of dazzle, again making this feel like a more glam affair. So, yes, Let's Bottle Bohemia is dizzyingly over-produced, but here it fits. It may take a few listens to retune your ears to such a clean, crisp, bold sound, but this disc makes a hell of a case for ProTools, and Dave Sardy should be commended for his decision to take the Thrills on a balls-out pop ride.
In fact, in terms of sheer musicality, Let's Bottle Bohemia consistently delivers, sometimes even over-delivering. Even the simpler arrangements are laden with hooks, and while there's a decided throwback feel to the songs, the melodies are catchy on their own as originals. Unfortunately, the lyrics don't always live up to the one-anthem-after-another grandiosity of the tunes. Other have already pointed out that Deasy's lyrics were mostly written on the road this time out, offering this as an explanation for their occasional thinness (the claustrophobia of road life not allowing for much experience), and admittedly the songs are centered around themes of performance, fame, artifice, and ego. But more than that, it seems like Deasy is a songwriter who writes great lines as opposed to great songs. Certain songs here ("Faded Beauty Queens", "You Can't Fool Old Friends With Limousines", even "The Irish Keep Gate Crashing") seem like either a string of sharply incisive one-liners, or one or two great lines around which the rest of a song was built. There's nothing wrong with that -- plenty of songs out there lack even one great line, and those that Deasy drop act as hooks in and of themselves -- but there are few songs that deliver a completely engaging story or idea.
On the other hand, Deasy himself is quite the salesman (ironic, given the possibly self-reflective choruses of the disc's untitled hidden track). While the lyric sheet makes for pretty thin reading, Deasy's warbling, twangy voice is somehow a compelling messenger, breathing some life into the observations. As producer, Sardy chose to foreground Deasy's voice much more than was done on So Much for the City, in spite of the fact that he's hardly a beautiful singer. But Deasy seems more at home this time out, and despite the sonic isolation, all of the stylistic peculiarities of his delivery give the tracks some character. Perhaps it's the confidence displayed within its limitations, or maybe it's just some innate reaction to countrified drawls, who knows, but after you acclimate to Deasy's voice, you're pulled in for good.
Still, the best thing about Let's Bottle Bohemia is the music, and I would fail as a critic if I were to leave out mention of how serendipitous it is that the Thrills, who cut their teeth drinking from Brian Wilson's fountain, would find themselves working with Van Dyke Parks, much less in the same year that Parks was helping Wilson finally bring his masterwork Smile to the light of day. In the main, Parks offers his hand by arranging strings for the gorgeous closing track, "The Irish Keep Gate Crashing", although he also throws some accordion into "Faded Beauty Queens". While the strings are kept subtle, worked into the mix without overpowering the guitars and keys, you get a real flavor for Parks's amazing ability with melody at the end of the disc when, following the hidden track, there's a second hidden track that is a reprise of Parks's arrangement from "The Irish", only in its full glory as its own piece. It's a stunning bit of work, as well as a clever tribute from the Thrills to end their disc in such a way.
Moreover, Let's Bottle Bohemia offers the chance to compare the work of two prominent studio arrangers, as the disc also features the string-work of Michel Colombier on "Not for All the Love in the World" and "Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?". The differences between Parks and Colombier are evident in a single listen, but both contribute pieces of unique beauty to the album. Particularly on "Corey Haim", Colombier's contributions are the more syrupy of the two, but the song is also the more ebullient of the two. True to form, it sounds as much like '70s soul and soul-pop as you could hope for, giving the song its silly, wonderful sequins and light-funk feel. The Scissor Sisters should be so lucky.
Oh, yeah... the disc also features guest spots from Jay Dee Maness's pedal steel and the guitar and mandolin work of Peter Buck. Of course, the great thing about Buck's guest work is that he rarely dominates a song, and his work on Bohemia is no exception.
So, it's a musical explosion of pop music on a grand scale, but are there standout tracks? Unfortunately, the first single, "Not for All the Love in the World" isn't one of them. Not that the Thrills and Colombier haven't crafted a beautiful song there... they have, but if anything is going to sink this disc for American audiences, it's going to be this track. While their commonalities are few, this track sounds like Coldplay more than anything else, and while US audiences seem to have an affinity for Chris Martin's weepier tracks, it does a disservice to the Thrills and Let's Bottle Bohemia that the first impression of the album will be an attempt to recapture that same sound. The fact that the Thrills don't sound like their British contemporaries is a bonus for the band, and downplaying it seems like a mistake. As the only real ballad on the album, it's an obvious choice, but it's just not a good representative of what this disc is about. And if, in this current environment of VH-1 nostalgia mining, we aren't ready for the return of "Corey Haim", I doubt we ever will be.
No, for my money, the best songs on Let's Bottle Bohemia are the aforementioned "Haim", "Faded Beauty Queens", "Saturday Night", "Our Wasted Lives", "Found My Rosebud", "The Curse of Comfort", and "The Irish Keep Gate Crashing". Hmmm, for a disc with only ten official songs, that's more than half the disc. Yep, seems about right. Because Bohemia is a truly a start-to-finish album. From that opening angular guitar to the fading notes of Parks's string melodies, there's never a temptation to skip ahead, and the disc never gets boring.
For a band that's achieved a phenomenal level of success by imitating past masters, Let's Bottle Bohemia is as much an act of bravery as anything. Because, really, combining '60s and '70s stadium pop with hi-fi production means you're probably going to confuse fans and critics, and the Thrills could have failed spectacularly. But this disc proves that they've got the hooks, they've got the chops, and they're the real deal. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, the Thrills have re-invented themselves, and as long as their original fan base can hang on for the ride, they should go on and on and on.