Seemingly tangential story: a friend told me about seeing an indie pop band in San Francisco recently (they'll remain anonymous, even though you probably know them). Most of the crowd was into them, but one drunk from the balcony kept yelling "TRY HARDER!" I feel like yelling that at a lot of "indie pop" records that I hear; all too often, they have the same themes, sound, lyrics, everything. There's nothing wrong with making disposable music, I suppose, but it gets tedious pretty quickly.
No one will ever accuse Mike Johnson, who is Reclinerland for all practical purposes, of not trying hard enough. There's plenty of solo singer-songwriter debut albums (including some damn terrific ones, to be fair) that are nothing but a voice and guitar. There's not very many, particularly on micro-indie labels, that start with a string trio arrangement, like this one does with "Venezuela (Hating Trains)." Or that have this level of production quality, or variety of instrumentation. (Or have this clever of packaging -- I don't know how to describe it, but I've never seen anything quite like it, even though on the surface it looks like a standard cardboard package.)
Of course, all of that's useless if the songs sucked. But I wouldn't be wasting my time typing if they did. Lyrically, all of the songs on here are impressively mature; you feel as if you're talking to somebody who understands how the real world works, but who's still able to maintain a Romantic (caps very intentional) outlook on life. There may be separation, longing, and need, but there's still something beautiful to be salvaged from these things. Not only that, but all of the songs are quite well-crafted musically, standing up well after multiple plays -- they're not difficult to remember in part, but there always seem to be new details you notice after other listens. And he's got a good voice. And a working knowledge of Russian. And you can order sheet music of his songs at $2 a pop. Jealous yet? I am.
If there's a gripe to be leveled against Mr. Johnson (who, it should be noted, is not the Mike Johnson of Dinosaur Jr. fame), it may be that some of the songs here reflect more than a passing resemblance to other artists; "1981" has echoes of Billy Bragg, "Symphony #1" sounds for all the world like the lost closing track of Nick Drake's Pink Moon, and of course there's a Beatles vibe throughout the whole thing, underscored by the cutesy between-song talking in places, the unlisted cover of "Baby, You're a Rich Man" (one of four semi-unlisted tracks, most likely from some obscure single, I suppose), and the John Lennon quote in the liner notes. Personally, I don't care: maybe it's the sound of a songwriter finding his own voice, or maybe it's intentional tribute, but if Reclinerland can make songs that reference artists like that without being overshadowed by them (and I'll take his version of "Baby, You're a Rich Man" over the Beatles any day, heresy though that may be), then I'm happy. (DD)
(Expanding Brooklyn Records -- P.O. Box 3043, Portland, OR. 97208-3043; http://www.expandingbrooklyn.com/)
The debut album from this Wilmington, NC, quartet aims to please: the frenetic energy of Britpop is prevalent, the noisier pop workouts wouldn't sound out of place on a Superdrag or Westbury Squares record, and the final (listed) track, "Look to Find," is only a few minutes shy of being worthy of the Cure's best album closers. "Complex Conversation" is appropriately named, a six-minute ethereal power-popfest with a sparse indie dirge sandwiched right in the middle. There's something for everybody here, and unlike some acts who attempt to juggle several styles at once, Reverse keeps the balls in the air from the first second to the last. (JT)
(Reverse Operations -- 2039 Washington Street; Wilmington, NC 28401; email@example.com)