Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Trash Can Sinatras — In the Music

Because of their sporadic release schedule throughout their career, the Trash Can Sinatras are perhaps inherently relegated forever to cult status. Sure, the albums may not come on a regular schedule. But the band's ability to make thoroughly unified and consistent affairs every time out is what sets them apart. And this also explains why In the Music —only their fifth proper album in just under twenty years— is sure to delight longtime fans.

After A Happy Pocket, the band disappeared for eight years and returned triumphantly in 2004 with Weightlifting. Even though Weightlifting was mostly a very mellow, adult contempo affair, its title track was a superb update of their vintage jangly sound that managed to uplift and provide a breath of fresh air, establishing the band as a unique force that was able to endure past a venerable point in guitar rock. That's the funny thing, really: as much as they were lumped in with the post-Smiths jangle scene, they never really fit into any specific mold. Sure, their very first single 'Obscurity Knocks' (1989) is pretty much a jangle classic, but then songs from their gloriously diverse second album (1993's I've Seen Everything) like 'Hayfever' and 'Orange Fell' were played at nearly shoegazing levels. They've always been mostly a mellow band, but when Weightlifting came out, enough time had passed for the album to sound less like a complete jolt of slow pretty guitar AOR material and more like the natural progression of a band that had grown up and out of the scene in which it began.

The production techniques of their first three albums firmly aligned them with the jangle and Brit pop scenes, but when the time came to record Weightlifting, the band wisely chose a more immediate, intimate and decidedly modest presentation for their songs. The jangly guitars, Frank Reader's undeniably expressive and strong vocals, the brief rushes of symphonic accompaniment, the downright relateable catchiness of the material, it all supposed an interesting thing that was previously hidden in their music but now made complete sense: they sounded an awful lot like a 70's soft-rock band (in a good way). And this sound is explored even further on their latest album, In the Music. The whole thing has a bit more a labored-over feeling to it, as there are more keyboards, a few more big symphonic crescendos, breezing distortion-free spacious guitar solos and an overall feeling of in the studio, organic perfection.

The Fender Rhodes twinkles on 'I Wish You'd Met Her', the blue-eyed soul leanings of the title track, and yes, even the Carly Simon feature (no, seriously!) on 'Should I Pray?' all conjure up images of the artfully constructed and emotionally genuine pop music that reached its apex in the early and mid 70's with things like America, Fleetwood Mac, the David Crosby and Graham Nash duo albums and Cat Stevens. In the Music doesn't really feel like a conscious revival of that sort of thing as much as it does a genuine point at which the band has arrived after years of honing their sound (indeed, 'Prisons' is as close as they come to their old sound here, and yet it fits right in with this material; fully illustrating the natural progression). Frank Reader sounds vocally as good as ever and his raspy croon lends itself well to this material and on songs like the title track or the epic 'Oranges and Apples,' he sounds so good, you'd swear that he's been waiting twenty years to sing this stuff.

Everything here jangles just as much as their old material, but it's always offset by some sort of keyboard or echo-heavy arpeggio that dips the music into a breezy sea of warmth. And that's one thing that really stands out here: despite all of the obvious production, this is just about the most personal the Sinatras have ever sounded. There is an undeniable warmth to the material that preempts any sort of distance that overproduction might have, under other circumstances, threatened to ruin the whole thing. On the contrary, the even lusher musical backing only enhances the resonance.

So, if they're willing to keep up this trend of five year breaks between albums only to release absolutely classic-sounding and indisputably strong pop music, I'm all for it. They've reached that point where the scene they spurted out of (perhaps on a fluke) is long dead so any allegiance to any sound is non-existent and, consequently, they've been provided that rare chance to pursue a self-satisfying and listener-rewarding sound on their own terms.

A welcome return.

And an addendum: In the Music was initially available dang near a year ago as a ludicrously priced import, so I held off. It finally saw domestic release about a month ago and the American version adds eight bonus tracks (almost doubling the album's running time!) from a 2009 acoustic live performance. The performances are great and include at least one song from all of their albums up to and including Weightlifting. It's not really a complimentary piece to In the Music, but it's better served as its own entity entirely. Not sure what the motive behind such a big helping of seemingly unrelated bonus material was, but I'm glad they included it!