December 13, 2004

Icicles "A hundred Patterns"

For those of you who don't know, and I'm sure there are a bunch of you who don't, the Icicles are the early 21st century version of the Partridge Family. Except that they're not related (or pretend to be related) and they can play their instruments. No, if you see and hear them, you'll know what I mean. Just look at the paper doll caricatures of them on the cover of this album. They wear matching retro outfits and sing ultra-cute, innocently fun tweepop music. Yes, I've seen this band live and it's like going through a time warp to a time (perhaps only existing in fictional television nostalgia) when rock and roll was innocent and there weren't even any veiled, winking references to drugs or sex in the music. But just because this is the kind of band you can bring home to mother or have play in front of your girl scout troop, don't think they're lame. Unless you hate cuteness, because the Icicles are as cute as a roomful of kittens and as sugary sweet as the last time you stuffed yourself full of Halloween candy. Those who don't know how to hold their sugar will have trouble digesting the Icicles' sublime confections of guitar, bass, farfisa-ish keyboard, drums, and mostly female vocals.

This Michigan-based band has previously released one six-song EP, aptly named the Pure Sugar EP. With songs about lemonade and somersaults in the summertime, going on a date to the picture show, the joys of hair dye and the tribulation of being a wallflower in the corner waiting to dance, it was a tweepop fan's dream. It's an underrated classic, and if you don't already have it, I strongly recommend it. Since then, the Icicles have replaced their original bassist and drummer. However, core members Gretchen DeVault (lead vocals, guitar, most songwriting) and Joleen Rumsey (keyboards, vocals) still remain, and the Icicles still sound much like the same band they were on Pure Sugar. However, early reviews have said that the Icicles seem more "mature" on this release. While that does seem true, I'd say they've only matured just a little bit.

The height of maturity on A Hundred Patterns is a song called "Pretty". It's sung from the point of view of a girl insecure about her looks. "Pretty, pretty, pretty. Maybe if I were pretty, I would be happy," reasons the girl in the song. The girl goes on to compare herself to the unusually thin models presented in magazines, which perpetuate the unrealistic standards of beauty that cause girls to starve themselves to death, get plastic surgery, and not embrace their outward geekiness. I could go on and on about how sad it makes me to see female geeks deny themselves and succumb to the pressure to conform to the frivolous standards of beauty set by the patriarchy, but I won't. (Yes, girls, there are boys out there who'd choose a blatantly geeky girl over the starved, plastic-laden centerfold.) Anyway, the song ends with a great, sardonic twist: "Happy, happy, happy. Maybe if I were happy, pretty wouldn't matter." This issue is a great premise for a song, and I'm glad that the Icicles addressed it.

Besides that, all but three of the remaining ten songs on the album are love songs. One of the other non-love songs is the leadoff track, "Rock n' Roll Girl", a feminine variation on the yearning many young people have to leave their nowhere town and successful traverse the path of rock stardom. In this version of the rock and roll fantasy, the boys are throwing flowers at the prospective rock star's feet as she walks down the street. I can't help but wish this would really happen to Gretchen because you hardly ever see any female rock stars who don't come off as worthless and asinine.

Another non-love song is the Joleen Rumsey-penned (and sung) "Bat in the Kitchen", which is about exactly what the title says it is. The endearing thing about this song is that while the bat is seen as an annoyance, Joleen has nothing but goodwill for the bat. "We don't want to hurt you, we just want to get you outside. We don't want to hurt you. We just want to help you fly." An amazing amount of composure in a situation in which many others would scream, "Get the hell out of here, you goddamned flying mouse before I put a stake through your vampire heart!"

The remaining non-love song is "Happy Place", about being driven insane by stress--and it sounds like the singer is literally going insane. After articulating the craziness she's been going through, the song ends with the lines "I'm going to my happy place, where none of this will ever happen again." I don't think I've ever seen tweepop totally lose it like this. I should also mention that the way they play this song is very upbeat and danceable. If you don't pay attention to the lyrics, it sounds quite happy.

I said that the rest of the songs are love songs, but that statement makes them sound one-dimensional. Was 69 Love Songs one-dimensional? The sentiments are just as varied on here as they are on that classic album. There's "I Wanna Know", about a girl wondering about the future of her relationship, asking her boy "Will I be your forever girl or will you just replace me?" Then, there's "Ralphy Rodriguez", a song about a girl with a huge celebrity crush, seemingly bordering on psychosis when you consider lines like "I know you're the one for me, it came to me in a dream" and "Maybe you don't know me, but I feel it just the same. You were meant for me, and I know you'll feel the same way." "Snowman" is about a girl in the springtime reflecting on the fun she had playing in the snow with her love. There's also "Porch Swing", about the delicious trepidation one experiences when deciding whether or not to tell a prospective significant other how you feel about them.

But I still haven't told you about the best song on the album, which is the last song, "Sugar Sweet". Besides having one of the most infectious melodies ever (I'm not exaggerating here), giving it guaranteed earworm status, it's got one of the most interesting lyrical twists I've ever seen in a love song. The verses are all head-over-heels in love, with sentiments like "You make my heart pitter patter. This kind of loving makes nothing else matter." But things get interesting in the chorus. The chorus consists of one surprisingly catchy line: "Oooh, yeah. You're just about my everything." What stands out to me is that it says you're "just about" my everything. That implies that the lover to whom this is being sung is not the singer's everything, and while he's close to being her everything, she still has a small part of her life that's not taken up by him. You don't often hear happy love songs equivocate like that, ladies and gentlemen.

This CD is a great step in the progression of the Icicles' career. As you see from the descriptions above, the Icicles have managed to present an album of great balance between adolescent romance and sophisticated "adult" thought. If you were familiar with the Icicles before, I hope you've already gone off to order this CD before finishing this review. For everyone else, you definitely need this if excessive amounts of sugar don't make you puke. Play it for your girl scout troop!

--Eric Wolf

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