The Thrills fired the warning shot in November of 2002, with the majestic, West Coast romanticism of Santa Cruz (you’re not that far). Don’t feel bad if you missed it. The four-track EP saw only limited release in England, introducing a select handful — mostly NME staffers — to their California-obsessed pop confections. Of course, the amusing part was that “not that far” turned out to be more like several thousand miles. For while the Thrills gleefully appropriate the shimmering Beach Boys hooks, these five kids are hardly natives — having honed their craft as teenagers in the green hills of Ireland.
But it just goes to show you that inspiration can strike anywhere, regardless of geographical location, as the Thrills do the California golden era greater justice than any indigenous group in recent memory. The Thrills’ sound is a marvel of kaleidoscopic ambition and fervor, as enthralled with production intricacies as it is with the pleasures of simple melody. Perhaps the current group closest in spirit to the Irishmen is Grandaddy, the Modesto-based band specializing in spacey pop suites. The Thrills flesh out their songs with a similar über-modern aesthetic, but they clearly work with a more traditional songwriting template, reining in the artier inclinations of their American contemporaries.
The Thrills are, in a way, direct descendents of ’60s hit-makers like the Beach Boys and the Lovin’ Spoonful, despite their indie, thrift-store garb. (Their marketing team no doubt hopes the look will align them with the recent crop of so-called garage bands.) So Much for the City basks in the purest of pop pleasures. Some might accuse the Thrills of trafficking in nostalgia (in England they’re already jokingly referred to as “The Sunshine Band”), but their songwriting is more suggestive than derivative of that particular era. More importantly, it’s clearly rendered by a group with a keen understanding and appreciation of pop history — the Thrills aren’t delving into the past for irony or kitsch value.
Songs like “Big Sur” and “Don’t Steal Our Sun” are guiltless delights, outfitted with breezy choruses and smart, bubbly instrumental passages. “One Horse Town”, their first Top 20 single, is perhaps their most fully-realized statement of purpose — with a chorus plucked straight from a vial of Prozac. Really, all of the best tracks succeed in establishing a carefree, beach-bum mood — a wasted day spent lounging in the sand. You can practically taste the tequila sunrises and salty waves. But perhaps more directly responsible for the Thrills’ triumph is the sweet, childlike naivete that runs through the album tracks. Singer-songwriter Conor Deasy keeps the tone light and playful, imbuing the compositions with an innocent candor befitting his tales of B-movie producers and harried publishers.
In interviews, Deasy has repeatedly emphasized how important it was to him to create an album without any filler. Sadly, So Much For the City falls exactly four songs short of flawless. “Old Friends, New Lovers”, “Say It Ain’t So”, “Hollywood Kids”, and “Just Travelling Through” come one after the other about midway through the record, and their shortcomings are glaring, especially since they come after five tracks of unblemished pop bliss. “Old Friends” is a treacly ballad that exposes the Thrills’ most saccharine tendencies. “Say It Ain’t So” sounds like you something you might hear when the clowns come out at a rodeo, while “Hollywood Kids” is a slow, turgid dud, notable only for its completely random name-checking of Dustin Hoffman. “Just Travelling Through” is at least inoffensive enough to ignore, but it’s still b-side material at best. Thankfully, the Thrills rebound with the final three tracks: the succinct and most straight-ahead rocker, “Your Love is like Las Vegas”, the twilit lullaby “Til the Tide Creeps In”, and the jaw-droppingly gorgeous “Plans”, which is inexplicably included as a hidden track.
While So Much For the City is definitely a stellar and occasionally stunning debut, I can’t help but feel a bit let down after the genius of the Santa Cruz EP. Produced by the band themselves, Santa Cruz found the Thrills more at ease and confident in the strength of their songs, resisting the urge to clutter the tracks with unnecessary embellishment. In contrast, the sense of adventure and wide-eyed enthusiasm is a bit dulled on the full-length. Tony Hoffer’s overly-meticulous production work certainly deserves part of the blame — of the four EP tracks rerecorded for the album, only one, “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far)”, is markedly improved upon — but it’s hard to finger anyone other than Deasy for the stamp of apathetic laziness on the four aforementioned tracks. Nice start then, but perfection will have to wait.