For some listeners, 'pop' is a dirty word. While it might be considered cool in the hands of someone like Björk, the phrase 'they've gone all poppy' is rarely used as a positive description of a new direction.
The press release for New York collective The Silent League's third album, But You've Always Been The Caretaker, would have you believe it is a soft rock record influenced by 'power ballads of the Seventies'. While there is certainly more than a trace of Bowie, Roxy Music and ELO here, younger listeners will more readily make links with the Flaming Lips, Grandaddy and Mercury Rev, of which founder Justin Russo used to be a member. Regardless of flowery descriptions and flattering comparisons, most of this album is pure pop. Not in the Lady Gaga sense, but in the classic sense.
After intro 'Egg-Shaped', the album kicks off strongly with 'When Stars Attack!!!', its bold and rolling melody piquing interest before falling away to delicate, softly-softly vocals backed by woodwind and swells of strings. Without wanting to give the game away, this is as good as the album gets and a real highlight, its military drum rolls acting as a counterpoint to its uplifting harmonic construction.
Next comes less-than-endearing first single and ELO cover 'Yours Truly, 2095'. Before describing this one further I should make a confession; I hate auto-tuned vocals with a burning passion and have never heard what I would consider a credible use of the technology. It just sounds godawful. With this in mind, I had to really force myself to relisten to this track. Lyrics like "Maybe someday I'll feel her cold embrace / And kiss her interface" didn't help much either, even if they are delivered with tongue slightly in cheek.
The rest of But You've Always Been The Caretaker slips past in an orchestrated hail of strings, brass, ukulele, slide guitar, harp, oboe and synthesisers. 'There is a Caretaker in the Woods' is nice enough, hinging on lilting gospel vocals and country melodies but never really taking off. 'Dayplanner' is sprawling and saccharine, featuring a short but massively cheesy sax solo. The unexpected breakdown in 'The Ohio Winter Conventioners' is not enough to save it from mediocrity. 'Here's A Star' is an unexciting Bowie B-side-alike.
Across this album's 15-track length there is very little that catches the ear like it should do, especially considering its focus on dynamics, heavy orchestration and varied instrumentation. And here, for me, lies the crux. Album number three ought to be challenging, concise and 'somewhat different' (another press release quote). What we are presented with instead is a rehash that is on a par with previous efforts and frustratingly comparable in quality. Like The Orchestra, Sadly, Has Refused and Of Stars and Other Somebodies before it, the album boasts two or three memorable, whistle-worthy orchestral pop songs and 12 or 13 filler tracks. 'Pop' is an ever-shifting concept, so even more frustrating is the fact that the record's best efforts could easily have appeared on either of its predecessors without seeming at all out of place. Maybe they should've made one album instead of three...
5Sam Walby's Score