A lingering melancholy seems to follow throughout the Babies' self-titled release. Featuring Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls and Kevin Morby of Woods, the group binds the jumpy energy of their respective bands into a snappy collection of simple rockers where the upbeat tempo seems to amplify the underlying sadness.
Album opener "Run Me Over", along with the single that preceded the album, "Meet Me in the City", suggested that the album would be 11 thumb-snappers that pay homage to the simple but deep garage rock tunes of the mid-'60s. While those tunes do nod to the early San Francisco garage scene, and inject a little electric Dylan into the mix, the release is more of an album than a collection of singles.
Although the album kicks off with some uppity numbers that follow the classic pop music pattern, the band uses its sparse setup to try out some experiments that work so well they don't sound like experiments. "Caroline" is little more than a crescendo that starts as a soft wail until it explodes into a refrain of the title. Here, Ramone's voice* is at its most powerful, displaying her ability to create a very specific feeling of loneliness and loss from the mere annunciation of a single word.
"Voice Like Thunder" starts by picking along guitar strings so they sound like drops of thunder only to erupt near the end with no refrain to speak of. Interestingly, this song, along with "Wild 2", bear a striking similarity to the warm, rolling tone found in the ballads of the Rolling Stones' Goat's Head Soup,. This is probably a coincidence resulting from the fact that both groups fuse the rollicking sound of early rock with southern country/folk to create yeehaw tunes that were meant to play in Manhattan as opposed to yonder prairie.
Lasting a little over 20 minutes, the range of sound and subject matter the group is able to squeeze out of the 11 tracks is remarkable. Because they are able to so quickly snap together the skeleton of a classic pop song, they are able to abandon this format without looking like they are trying to avoid anything. As "Wild 1" shifts into "Wild 2", the group creates unusual structures with their ringing guitars that completely buck what a "normal" song is supposed to be, but because they mastered the form early on in the record, your ears are deceived into thinking that their new structures fit right alongside their more traditional jams.
The Babies remain fascinating in both their ability to master rock at its core as well as their ability to morph a great extent over such a short record. Although the group might be just a side project, it seems that sometimes when members are just having fun they create some of their most interesting and daring work.
* - Because reviews are as much about debate as they are about providing information, I'd like to comment on a troubling trend I've noticed on other review-based websites and magazines. In their review of this record, other critics have assaulted Ramone's voice with undeserved vitriol. Some publications have spent up to three paragraphs attacking her voice as being off key and flat. This view is both unfounded and short-sighted.
First, I was under the impression that in the punk and indie scenes, passion and earnest delivery were more important than adhering to an accepted tonal template. Simply because Ramone doesn't sing like Beyonce or that her vocals have been processed beyond feeling doesn't mean that they are "bad." Rather, it just proves that the group is more interested in conveying emotion than technical ability, something a good deal of other indie groups could learn from.
Second, to assault Ramone's so viciously voice simply because it doesn't sound like other acts shows a fundamental lack of foresight. Wasn't Janis Joplin accused of being flat and off key when her records were released? Now, some 40 years later, Joplin is seen as a visionary of a new style. In addition, the same publications that criticize Ramone's delivery praised Lil Wayne's wheeze and Kanye's mumble. That's not to say that Lil Wayne or Kanye are bad. Rather, they have invented new vocal delivery styles to well-worn genres. If they can invent new ways to sing, why can't Ramone?
Third, Ramone's voice hasn't changed that much since the release of the first Vivian Girls LP, a widely hailed release by the now critical publications. To criticize her voice now that the Vivian Girls are popular seems to be more the object of personal vendetta for her group leaving the confines of its original fanbase than any true subjective opinion of her delivery.
Lastly, to criticize Ramone for her singing style seems to miss the point entirely. Ramone seems to sing the way she does to stand out and invent a new form of delivery. It doesn't seem like she's trying to fit into previous templates of harmony. To criticize Ramone's unique delivery for being off key is like criticizing Kanye for being full of himself: The point which these publications attack is irrelevant to the goals of the artists. They are both trying to create something new. They're not trying to act in conformity with what is already acceptable.
To the publications which seem to follow the vicious cycle of building an artist up in the earliest releases, only to tear them down when that artist fails to act in accordance with what is expected: Welcome to the concept of art. You should have learned what it is by now.