(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

CD review - Secret Cities, Strange Hearts (2011)

The retro tinged low-fi crowd has its separate camps: purists reproducing a particular era, garage bands epitomizing DIY simplicity, countless acts using the sound to scratch an aesthetic itch. Secret Cities has pitched their tent out in the far edges. They're closest to the purists, with a lounge/easy listening vibe. They capture an innocence perfectly in tune with their '60s feel. The sound is hazy and muted, like a lint wrapped cheap phono cartridge or a '66 Plymouth Valiant's AM radio

That blanket of fog makes listening to Strange Hearts almost like the memory of music rather than a direct experience. Despite the simple arrangements and easy listening feel, the production values give it a trippy feel even though this is not quite 'normal' psychedelia. It's also worth noting that the songwriting is very good and occasionally clever.

The opening track, Always Friends, nails the '60s pop song. The melody and reverbed drums are era-perfect. The balance of the uptempo beat and melancholy singing reflects so many songs from that time. On the first listen, the lyrics drift by, regretfully dealing with breakup and loss. It wasn't until a later listen that the subversiveness of the lyrics slipped through, taking a more modern attitude: "But I feel much better to know it was bad for you, too."

No Pressure folds girl group high harmonies into a proto-ska sound. It's a thick schmear of nostalgia, but so satisfying. Like the rest of the album, the parts balance just so. The flow from No Pressure into the lazy beat of Pebbles is effortless. This is another track with pleasantly surprising lyrics:
Pebbles, it's time to go home now.
The drag race is over.
You smashed up your car. And now
The dream is over.
There will be no wedding.
I begged you to stay home
Now look what you've done.
The story setup shows more depth than a casual listen might suggest.

Each track pushes today a little further away. Strange Hearts defines an alternate reality where Secret Cities should have influenced a slew of other bands 45 years ago. Serve up Grasshoppers all around to sink into this sweet time warp.

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