Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Proper Ornaments' "Wooden Head": Music Review

After meeting in a London vintage shoe shop, Argentinian Max Claps and Veronica Falls' Andrew Hoare formed this duo, appropriately signed to Slumberland. That label name never sounded more apt for a release from these two guitarists as The Proper Ornaments. Their debut, "Wooden Head," features fourteen measured, woozy, and catchy songs. Modestly but insistently, they burrow in.

The opener has stuck in my head for days after I first heard it. "Gone" mumbles its lament, over stumbling guitars and a shuffling beat. Vocals recall the British neo-psychedelic sounds of thirty years ago, and like much of this album, these short songs stay faithful to predecessors, if august ones. The Jesus and Mary Chain, sans feedback, provides a fitting reference for this first, unsteady song.

"Sun" rises slowly, as its Beatlesque drums and thick melody turn to the take that like-minded revivalists Darker My Love took on their first two albums. Swirling voices, a wash of cymbals, and strums over steady percussion. It ends suddenly, with a hint of menace after a magical mystery tour.

For "Ruby," the guitars turn gentler. A pastoral mood carries this along, unassumingly. By this time, a boost is needed to spark the track sequence. The Byrdsian guitars and foggy production of "Now I Understand" could have come off of "Younger Than Yesterday" and this blend of simple arrangements with chiming chords works well to highlight the pair's knack for pleasant folk-rock.

It's back to the Beatles, perhaps filtered through a L.A. Paisley Underground band such as Rain Parade, for "Don't You Want to Know" with its keyboard backing and forceful if understated drums.

Despite a title of "Magazine," I hear hints of The Kinks, cleverly crossed with the Beatles-period of the Byrds. However, a strength of this album is that such patterns entice rather than dissuade a listener. As a fan of every band I've listed in this review, I admire the craft this record incorporates.

Another twist of band references floats "Stereolab"; here we hear that band in the propulsive keyboards and layered pulses of the guitars. But there is also a nod to New Zealand indie rock on the Flying Nun label in the expansive instrumental approach. It's too brief a song, but it feels very epic.

A brasher delivery for "Step into the Cold" follows, a well-chosen jolt to sustain the spacier ambiance of the predecessor with a churning guitar arrangement again suited to aficionados of 1980s college rock. Hearing this, The Clean or The Chills hover at the edges, under the confident, intricate attack. Appropriately, a dominant influence on so many revivalists, The Velvet Underground, surfaces at its end in the twinned or overlain guitars and this song ends on a familiar, welcome note of repetition.

By now, "Tire Me Out" may sound an admission of weariness. It deftly simmers many of the sounds mentioned above. Yet it keeps a stripped-down, homespun sound with its backing track, as if a demo tape from an obscure if talented Down Under band circa 1982. For me, that's high praise.

The smokier mood of "Always There" creates a huskier atmosphere. It has a slight Ennio Morricone ambiance. For me, it seems inspired more by Chris Isaak than the more effusive musical forebears. However, it offers some variety for those who may like this sultrier, less effervescent or lysergic tone.

Yes, "Summer's Gone" does sound like another Jesus and Mary Chain downbeat ditty, in title and delivery. It borrows from the mid-period Velvets a contemplative attitude. It feels more reverential than revivalist. This may or may not recommend it to you, but again, the decision by The Proper Ornaments to divert itself from fourteen songs determined to repeat past masters merits due respect.

And, "What Am I to Do" reminds me of "Dear Prudence" as it begins with a slow jangled progression of guitars over a clicking percussion track. In its severe, sedated state, it summons up well sleepiness.

If you ever wondered what simmering the J+MC with the Beatles might produce, cue up "You Shouldn't Have Gone" for a fine example of what melancholic voices and processed effects produce. Boyhood fans in the 1960s turned 1970s musicians to make records in the 1980s in turn. These then spawned the creators of congenial sounds, five decades on. This song is a fine tribute to the pioneers of the psychedelic-pop and indie-rock movements which stretch by now back an entire half-century.

British accents on "You'll See" one last time pay homage to this legacy. For all its polite bows to those who came before, "Wooden Head" rewards in reminding us of the songwriting strengths within comforting three-minute songs. May this record keep playing on repeat for you, as it has for me. (7-31-14 in edited, shorter form, to Spectrum Culture)

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