October, 2001: I am a college sophomore reading Alexis de Tocqueville in an empty coffee shop. Suddenly over the busted speakers I hear this freaking song thatsounds like everything I’ve been looking for in Western philosophy books and instantly regrettable hook ups. This being a time when not everyone had a laptop or a smart phone, it was an agonizing eighteen minutes before I could race back to my dorm room and confirm that the axis-shifting song was “The Modern Age,” from The Strokes’ debut album, Is This It.
A markedly less fabled narrative gives rise to the esteem in which I hold two recent debut albums: those of Danger Mouse-produced soul-pop outfit Electric Guest, and Murals, a band of mellow psych-rockers out of Louisville, Ky. No thunderclap heralded the occasion of the first listen, no feverish desire to know whowhatwhenwhereHOW this came to exist, just a routine tip from a friend. With both albums, a pleasantly nostalgic yet invigorating lead single whetted my appetite for more. (Electric Guest also became more interesting upon discovering that frontman Asa Taccone co-wrote the hilarious Saturday Night Live parody “Dick In A Box” with his brother Jorma Taccone, of sketch comedy troupe The Lonely Island.) Yet in my own mind, the shadow of 2011’s singular, hyper-realized debuts (James Blake, Youth Lagoon) threatened to obscure the gems waiting to be discovered in these two solid first outings.
On Electric Guest’s standout track, “This Head I Hold,” Taccone’s soulful, downright buttery delivery comes off like a sort of vocal hula hoop exercise, swinging hypnotically around a terminally hip backbeat courtesy of drummer Matthew Compton. If you can’t imagine this song introducing a sloppily dressed but clean-shaven anti-hero in a Tarantino movie, then you obviously watch fewer neo-Noir gangster flicks than I do. In fact, much of Electric Guest’s Mondo – which makes its case convincingly if somewhat losing sight of its argument during the album’s second half – could serve as a good but broken man’s confessional, shot through a lens of cinematic beauty. Here is where Danger Mouse’s genius becomes apparent, as the super producer supplies his patented kinetic spark, which leaps off of tracks like “This Head I Hold” and gives the groovy bassline of “Awake” swagger to spare, even as he engineers songs like “Amber” and “Troubleman” to possess the tonal resonance of faded love letters.
While Electric Guest’s troubled man is lost in the lucid nightmare of his own mistakes, the four brothers (from other mothers) who make up Murals drift through a sweeter reverie On A Passing Cloud. Released as summer days reached their longest, the album is a warm and inviting meditation on the season, and like summer, ends sooner than you’d hope. The firefly-flecked title track quivers with a day’s dying bird songs, cooling into what might be a field recording of several extremely relaxed musicians enjoying sweet tea on a porch at twilight. Playing it loose but keeping it tight, the band rolls into the charming “Cereal” before pulling out the big guns (or rather, flower bombs) on “Eyes of Love.”
Infinitely greater than the sum of its whispered parts, “Eyes of Love” turns a lilting guitar-and-piano melody with no more than a dusting of snare into, honestly, one of the fullest expressions I’ve heard of psychedelic folk that wasn’t made in the sixties. It’s a pure, simple, and beautiful tune that, like a sweetly mildewy scent trapped somewhere in your grandmother’s sitting room, instantly brought back my fondness for folk’s fairy godmother Vashti Bunyan.
The challenge for both of these promising bands will be avoiding that pesky (if unfairly maligned) “derivative” label, while distinguishing themselves from peers who’ve made it big on the back of nostalgia or “throwback music.” Electric Guest revel in the sixties R&B sound (even taking an intrepid cue from peace-and-love-loving vocal group Fifth Dimension, of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” fame), and it works for them. But a part of the duo-turned-foursome remains unsure, as on serviceable cuts like “The Bait” and “Under the Gun,” which suggest an overreliance on hooks to dress up a small lack of confidence. “Holes” shimmers with a generous pinch of synth adorning an earnest, almost plainspoken delivery, but for all its soul-bearing, lacks the originality of later tracks like the cheekily downplayed social critique “American Daydream.”
Of the two efforts, Murals fare somewhat better on the identity front, having released a debut that’s almost startling in its complexity and self-assuredness, especially for a group high school buddies who graduated in 2006. Like Real Estate before them, here is a band well aware of its musical lineage, yet one that is clearly invested in creating something new and often delightfully, subversively weird. Murals really does it for me when they go off the deep end, and you get the feeling that these fellas have spent a lot of time “submerged.” Get the earphones out, and just sit back and listen to vocalist Jacob Weaver’s creepy monotone reverberate against the pretty refrain of “Were You Dreaming.” Sick.
I love a good cannonball debut – the kind that splashes onto the scene without warning or apology, blowing the minds of the informed and uninformed alike, sparing neither startled toddlers in their arm floaties, nor those poolside-languishing bodies who came to get their tan on. The kind of album that teleports the band you didn’t know you needed, suddenly, magically, into your sad little life. Although neither Mondo nor On A Passing Cloud dropped with a sonic boom, these are certainly bands worth keeping a close eye on. After all, there are two kinds of notable debuts that give reason to look forward to the follow up: those that keep you wondering how on earth they could possibly top it, and those that leave just enough growing room to speculate about how much more awesome they’ll be the second time around.
Tiffany Hairston lives, works, and plays in Washington, DC, where she was born and where she claims she will die at the age of sixty-three-and-a-half. She believes your golden years should be almost as tumultuous as your twenties. She spends a lot of time daydreaming, often about what she would put on a playlist for a formerly deaf person and recent recipient of a cochlear implant, hearing music for the very first time. Her last piece for FP was a review of Dirty Projectors Swing Lo Magellan.