April 09, 2004

Moonbabies "The Orange Billboard"

In order to prevent a conflict of interest from happening, I have to begin this review with a disclaimer. Even though I’ve never met core Moonbabies members Ola Frick and Carina Johansson in person, we have a mutual admiration that dates all the way back to 1998, when we first began trading homemade cassettes of our music with each other through the mail. The first full-length article I ever wrote in a ‘zine was about them. The first cassette I released on my (now defunct) label Tangerine Tapes was a collection of sixteen of my favorite Moonbabies songs. Needless to say, I have a soft spot for this Swedish duo that only an album of intolerable weakness could harden. I don’t think that Ola and Carina have such an album in them, though, for their sophomore full-length The Orange Billboard is yet another notch in a slow and steady artistic ascent. The Moonbabies had transcended their beginnings as My Bloody Valentine acolytes by the time their debut June and Novas was released, but the new album is an improvement in almost every possible aspect. The songs are stronger, the production is fuller, and the band has seamlessly integrated new influences into their already expansive sound.

First of all, this album boasts a greater employment of electronics. In songs like “Fieldtrip USA,” “Sun A.M.,” and the title track, real trap sets and programmed drums are intertwined with each other, and nearly every other song on the record boasts at least one computer-generated flourish that ensures a superb headphone listen. Many of the songs shift from quiet, pretty verses that are dominated by electronics to loud, assertive choruses boasting traditional rock instrumentation. Although nowadays it’s not that surprising to hear bands straddle the rock/techno divide, it IS a shock to hear a band that bore such a big debt to MBV (who arguably did such straddling before it became fashionable) do so in a manner that more closely recalls gentler bands like the Postal Service. The only songs that come close to the mimicry that characterized earlier Moonbabies work are “Sun A.M.” and “Slowmono.” In the former case, it’s only because of a couple of brief interjections of distorted squealing that sound more like out-of-tune horn fanfares than guitars. In the latter case, it’s because the song is actually a remake of an old Moonbabies song, the original version of which is on the Tangerine Tape I released.

Even then, “Slowmono” serves as a case in point for how far the Moonbabies have come beyond mere MBV mimicry. The first half of the song is more keyboard-driven, and the band inserts some nice time signature changes in the breaks between verses. These changes notwithstanding, the song is still the album’s most rocking moment. It gets more intense as more layers of guitars are added, until the three-minute mark, when the tempo shifts to double-time and the amps get turned up to 11. The Orange Billboard could have benefited from one or two more songs like that, but that’s a minor quibble considering how well the band deviates from its own template on the rest of the record. 1960s pop seems to be the biggest new influence on this record. The bouncy Rhodes piano and staccato bass lines on “Crime O’ the Moon” recall the classic singles of the early Motown era, whereas other songs display more Beatlesque touches. “Over My Head” is a piano-driven ballad in the style of John Lennon’s early solo material. The ending of “Summer Kids Go,” which is a snippet of waltz music run backwards, is a total “Strawberry Fields Forever” move, and the slowly building orchestral ruckus that ends the title track is right out of Sgt. Pepper’s “A Day in the Life.”

Both Ola and Carina’s vocal chops have improved since the last album. Ola’s voice is more expressive and less throaty, enabling him to carry entire songs by himself (like the acoustic ballad “Summer Kids Go,” an album highlight) without needing Carina’s comparatively sweeter voice to balance him out. When Ola and Carina sing together (which, fortunately, is still quite often), the harmonies they attempt are more adventurous than they’ve ever been, and they’re pulled off flawlessly. Even though their vocals are at the front of the mix, their singing is still slurred and breathy enough to render the words occasionally incomprehensible. This might be a good thing, though. The dubious decision to print the majority of the album’s lyrics out in the CD booklet only serves to illustrate how charmingly mangled one’s lyrics can be when they’re not written in your own native tongue. Ola and Carina sing mainly about angst, nostalgia, and fatigue, but they occasionally toss off non sequiturs like “the crime o’ the moon made the six feet shoulder mom beg me to stop.” It’s the kind line that I’d expect to come out of Captain Beefheart’s mouth, and it sounds a bit jarring in the context of the Moonbabies’ sunshine-speckled pop. You’ll end up singing along anyway, though, and that’s all that matters in the grand scheme of things.

I review my friends’ music more often than most self-respecting rock critics would, but in the Moonbabies’ case, the fact that I know them doesn’t stop me from recommending their music with a clear conscience. After all, they’re just that good! The Orange Billboard is an album that will play tricks on your ears and leave a song or two (or eleven) in your heart. As worthy as this record is, though, I still think that Ola’s and Carina’s best work remains ahead of them.

---Sean Padilla

Label website: http://www.parasol.com
Artist Website: http://www.moonbabies.nl

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