This is something of an odd little curio, an eclectic musical confection that defies easy categorization. At the bedrock it sounds like it might be indie rock, at least to judge from the hooky songwriting and the occasional appearance of the acoustic guitar. But then there are the strange electronic flourishes, like the shuffling beats and the mournful trip-hop of "Headless Body In A Topless Bar". And then there are the plaintive, alt-country choruses and the sparse steel guitar bits. This is the sort of album that confuses you. It's a happy confusion, don't get me wrong, but it's still confusion.
The overriding feeling here seems to be that White Mud Free Way is another one of those precociously talented groups that pop up every so often, seemingly out of nowhere, only to astound the world with their previously invisible songwriting acumen. Would you hold it against them if I said they came out of New York?
White Mud Free Way is Terence Bernardo and Mari Solivan. Although they have since added a drummer and a bassist, Last Year's Junk is the sound of Bernardo and Solivan tinkering in the basement. They actually formed at the urging of turntable impresario Kid Koala, who went to college with Bernardo. Originally, Solivan was brought in merely to sing backing vocals, but the two soon found a rapport, which meant that Bernardo's solo project was now permanently a duo.
It's not a perfect rapport, however, because Solivan's voice is far superior to Bernardo's. They can harmonize adequately, but Solivan's solo tracks, such as the album-closing straight alt-country of "Nine Hours Back", are strikingly superior to Bernardo's. She's got a strong, lustful voice, slightly evocative of a less-polished Natalie Merchant or a more confident Cat Power. As a songwriting team, they seem superbly matched, but I would bet you anything that by the time their next album comes out, Bernardo''s voice is in the background.
Of course, given the eclectic nature of their sound, the Beck comparisons were inevitable. Certainly, there is a resemblance between Last Year's Junk and Mellow Gold, Beck's major label debut. If White Mud Free Way haven't yet written anything as instantly classic as "Loser", they shouldn't feel bad -- not many people ever do -- but they should appreciate the fact that they seem to have a much more instinctive grasp of the multi-generic pop song than Beck had at this stage in his career. Frankly, Mellow Gold was a mess with flashes of brilliance scattered throughout. Last Year's Junk is significantly more coherent, and the flashes of brilliance are strong indeed.
The album begins with "Mercury", a somewhat somber minor-key pop number built atop a loose-limbed rhythm track redolent of early Soul Coughing (complete with a rubbery bassline and jazzy drumming). Like some of the best pop songs, it's about a number of confusing things. Solivan begins by singing "I don't think about cowboys anymore / They used to gallop to my door / naked waist to top / complaining how they'd love to stop / but for the wind that whipped them west". There are a number of things going on here -- there's a jangly acoustic guitar playing the melody line, some space-age keyboard effects, a fuzz-heavy guitar solo, multiple chorused "la la la's", and even some strange narration about space travel. Strangely, it all adds up to the perfect sonic expression of the wistful desire Solivan began the song by singing. There's a lot to absorb here, and it is to the duo's credit that everything is wonderfully, impeccably constructed.
There is nothing else as immediately winning as "Mercury", but the entire album is full of strong moments that add up to a collective wallop of a debut. Every time you think you have them pegged, they pull something else out of their wonderful kit bags and make you smile. It seems like there's a dozen new buzz bands down the block every day, each one holding the promise of "going places" and being big someday down the road. Every music critic worth their salt is guilty of exaggeration in this matter. Well, most "Next Big Things" fizzle, that's a fact of life. But I can think of very few groups whose second album I have wanted to hear as much as I want to hear White Mud Free Way's.