4/26/2004

So I got The Thrills' debut album, "So Much For the City", and it's excellent. I figured I'd write a review, sort of to practice if I want to write reviews in the future:

The Thrills are an Irish band with a thing for California. The fivesome's debut album, "So Much for the City," sounds a lot like early 60's pop music, especially the Beatles or the Monkees, with a healthy dose of modern-day California thrown in. The songs are well-crafted pop with frequent Beach Boys-style harmonies, catchy choruses and a mostly optimistic, sunny viewpoint. The CD is almost a tour of California, both geographically and of the Golden State's rock music. Like many Beach Boys songs, most of the songs either mention or are about some location in California, like "Big Sur," "Santa Cruz (You're Not That Far)," "Hollywood Kids," and the choruses of others, and The Thrills even sing part of the chorus of "Hey Hey We're the Monkees," replacing the "we" with "you." It's hard to tell if the reference is tongue-in-cheek or actually references a love for the music, or a little of both. The song "Big Sur," one of their singles, is excellent. It's up-tempo, like many songs on the album, and is very catchy and happy sounding but not corny or cliche. A rolling banjo plays a big role, and helps add to the song's laid back, sunny vibe. Lead singer Conor Deasy's voice is reminiscent of Jason Lytle, the lead singer of Grandaddy, mixed with the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. It's high, almost falsetto, though it's soft and whispery at times, especially on slower songs like "Travelling Through" and "Deckchairs and Cigarettes" (which, as usual, mentions going to San Diego while adding the sounds of waves and seagulls).

The band also reminds me of Pavement and Grandaddy with the same easy-going vibe, sometimes self-referential lyrics, a sense of place, and mentions of dead-end jobs ("I can't see you smiling pumping gas" on the Thrills' unnamed last track compared with Grandaddy's songs about work orders and supermarkets and Pavement's about minor league baseball players.) Interestingly, both Pavement (Stockton, CA) and Grandaddy (Modesto, CA) are from agricultural cities in California's Central Valley, and both cities are far from the major metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and San Diego. That distance, or maybe life in the valley itself, seems to temper both bands' songs, leading to introspection and interest in the subtleties of everyday life, which The Thrills also deal with. However, most of the songs on "So Much for the City" (which is also the first line of "Big Sur") are much more linear and less experimental than those of Pavement and are happier than most Grandaddy songs. It's tempting to say this is a concept album about California, that maybe the title "So Much for the City" is a dig at New York City in favor of California, or that The Thrills are a California band who just happen to come from Ireland, being that pretty much all of their songs are about the Golden State. Or maybe the band just wants to reflect a love of California and its rock music.

The main difference from the California strain is that "Santa Cruz," "Big Sur" and other songs involve a banjo as one of the main instruments. It seems like a lot of English and Irish rock bands, such as Coldplay and Travis and the Thrills, use the banjo, a traditional Irish instrument which was brought to the U. S. by immigrants. Most American rock bands avoid the instrument, maybe because of the hillbilly/Deliverance connotations. In fact, there aren't many American rock bands since 1990 or so that have used one, besides Beck occasionally. But it fits in well on these songs, adding both to the happy feeling on the sunnier songs and a somber feeling on the slower, sadder songs. It's one of the few connections with Ireland on the disc besides Deasy's occasional accent, which is hard to place anyway.

In any case, "So Much for the City" is an excellent debut album with really no weak tracks and some that are magnificent. With such a focus on California, it's hard to say what the Thrills may do on their next album (maybe they'll move up the coast and write about Oregon,) but this album should be on many best of the year lists. The Thrills play May 22 at the Black Cat in DC.

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