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

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Recording review - Sirsy, Coming Into Frame (2013)

Unapologetically pop duo share their earworms

The rock/pop duo Sirsy has tried working as a larger ensemble, but guitarist Rich Libutti and drummer Mel Krahmer have found their own wavelength that's hard to explain to others. They're renowned as a touring act, but until now they've never successfully translated their stage energy to the studio. On Coming Into Frame, they decided to break the pattern of their earlier release. Instead of self-producing, they brought in the production team of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (Hole, New Collisions, Dresden Dolls). The pair followed a "Rick Rubin" approach of understanding Sirsy and letting their sound come through. As a result, the album showcases Krahmer's strong voice and captures Libutti's subtle, retro guitar vibe. Kolderie and Slade found the right balance, where the engineering is fairly polished, but the album's not over-produced, maintaining a more organic feel.

The clean mix works well for the band.  While there are plenty of indie rock duos out there, Sirsy bucks the low-fi trend and favors a lush, textured pop sound. They embrace the pop label, but on their own terms. In an interview with RUST Magazine, Libutti is proud of making pop music but isn't comfortable being lumped in with Lady Gaga, "...our whole approach is so different, yet it's hard to differentiate ourselves." Despite hitting the pop jackpot - the songs are full of catchy hooks and earworm melodies -- Sirsy does stand out because of their depth and personality. A track like the thoughtful "Picture" starts out following an indie pop formula: a simple guitar figure repeats, building to a ringing chorus. But where their peers might favor a soft, delicate girly vocal, Krahmer's womanly voice demands respect. On "Brave and Kind", her singing pushes through with ringing power. The simple guitar riff has a touch of Radiohead's "Creep", especially on the chorus. As it grows in intensity, Libutti adds warmly distorted accents that seem to propel the vocals.

My favorite track is "Gold". It's light pop chord changes sound incredibly familiar, but the details make it more interesting. The guitar work is absolutely beautiful. The brief interlude after the first chorus is a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. Libutti's hollow, retro tone sets an introspective mood that fits the regretful feel of the song. Krahmer's lower register has a bit of Karen Carpenter in the lush verse vocals, but her voice is ballsier than Carpenter ever strove for. The lyrical flow is smooth and the phrasing ties the lines together:
And I suppose forgiving doesn't end it
Cause we're bound to screw it up again but
Just know I never meant to let you down
I guest it was so hard for me to see since
You've been the anchor, keeping hold of me then
That you would be the one of us to drown.
It's a very tasteful arrangement. Heavier handed producers would have gone ├╝ber-pop and Auto-Tuned the vocal, but Slade and Kolderie recognize that the programmed rhythm loop takes the song exactly where it needs to go and no farther.

Sirsy also used their play order to good effect. "Lot of Love" and "She's Coming Apart" seem like companion pieces. The first features an old school '60s pop feel, with tremolo guitar and Nancy Sinatra-style singing. Krahmer's vocal is very expressive; she's jaded and tough, but also hopeful:
Maybe it's all a bluff
This happy ending sort of stuff
When I see you smile, it makes me want to try, oh
The chorus is positively saucy. "She's Coming Apart" initially seems to continue the same musical changes, but quickly jumps into edgier territory. This time Krahmer is the narrator, cynically finishing the tale from "Lot of Love":
Annie's on automatic
No one seems to know
She says it all went South
Since they hit Mexico
The guitar-grinding chorus reminds me of the Runaways hard-rocking pop.

This would have been a good song to end Coming Into Frame. The actual last tune, "The Cost of You" is good and belongs on the album, but its moodier feel belongs earlier in the track list. I like the mix of electro-pop keys and violin accents, but it sacrifices too much energy. Sirsy tries to overcome this by building the tempo and volume to a climax, but it's not enough. That's a small complaint, though, for an album full of perfect pop moments.

Give a listen to Sirsy's wickedly hypnotic single, "Cannonball"

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