I love these guys. Maybe it's partly because they're from the Midwest (Springfield, Mo.). Maybe it's because they seem like normal, dorky guys who were friends first and bandmates second, evident in their hilarious self-shot, self-narrated making-of videos. But really, those things just add to the fact that I love their brand of no-gimmick pop-rock and their melodic prowess.
Although 2008's Pershing stepped up the production and rock quotient from their hushed lo-fi debut Broom, they were still doin' it themselves. Like another Polyvinyl fave of mine (of Montreal), the guys decided to find an outsider this time to expedite their usually snail-paced perfectionist recording process. Turns out Chris Walla is a fan. Convenient!
Walla helps to turn the "pop" and "rock" knobs all the way up, and you'll never miss the ramshackle nature of Broom because that was never the point with these guys. Opener "Back in the Saddle" remains my favorite and it's actually a noodley guitar lick that snags your ear first, thickened up with "whoa"s when it returns a couple more times. After that we get "Sink/Let It Sway," a track pieced together from song fragments with the help of Walla. It combines a jumpy verse riff with an undeniable chorus that never loses its cool. And then we get "Banned (By the Man)" which shows the band at their most power-pop with irresistible "na na na"s. The hits just keep comin'! Later: With an opening riff destined for a slow-motion Wes Anderson scene (i.e.: British Invasion-level riffage), we get "All Hail Dracula!", a contender for catchiest song on the disc, with fun moments like "You can do anything you want to me / But I can read your thoughts / They're always 'kill, kill / Kill kill kill kill kill kill kill kill!'"
Their penchant for gentle acoustic ditties has not disappeared completely, yet the only through-and-through one of those on Sway is "Stuart Gets Lost Dans Le Metro," with piano making a strong appearance. "Everlyn," led with a strong melody by John Robert Cardwell, keeps thing gentle as well but stays electric and rocks out harder in sections, but overall is the most downright beautiful track here (though the twinkly, reverby ending to Phil Dickey's "Phantomwise" is in the ranks as well).
The only thing missing from this album is the quirks. Is it too consistent? And why the hell would that be a problem?! Broom had the extended moans and groans of "Anne Elephant," Pershing had the empty rhyming exercise "Oceanographer." Perhaps "In Pairs" is this album's "Oceanographer," in that the lyrics are pointless, scrapping together lines from discarded songs. But the video says Walla heard them messing around on it and demanded it be recorded. It is an extremely fun jam with a funky section of gibberish ("All my years / All my life / Oh my god / All my life / On my ears / Like a knife") which ends up going ska later in the track. We also get two punk-lite double time-driven songs, "My Terrible Personality" and "Critical Drain." That's kinda unexpected but doesn't feel out of place at all. These guys can make anything work and make it poppy. OK, so it's still "quirky" but perhaps the smooth production tucks 'em into the fray nicely.
I feel like these guys could explode if given the chance. I think a lot of people write them off as another indie pop band in a world full of 'em. But these guys have "it." What is "it," you ask? Um...mad skills. Just give them an honest chance. Listen to a bunch, not just the first 30 seconds of one song, and let the hooks do their work (Simpsons reference intentional). As far as an album-to-album comparison goes, I'd still prefer Pershing over Let It Sway tracklist-wise, but it comes so close and it sounds so good.