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Music Review: The Baskervilles – Twilight

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Something about this CD just makes me happy. It’s not only the tripping melodies and head-bopping beats, or even the snappy horns that this New-York-based indie band has added since its last album. No, there’s something else, an effervescent glee that seems to come fizzing right out of the speakers. If that sounds saccharine, I promise it isn’t – somehow Twilight carries it off, with glints of snarky weirdness and irrepressible wit.

Just as the title suggests, Twilight is a beguiling mix of sunglow and shadow. The Baskervilles’ crisp, bright sound clearly harks back to classic 60s backbeat pop, but they distill those influences into something deliciously twisted and modern. Like Belle and Sebastian, to whom they’re often compared (only natural, given the similar male and female vocals), the Baskervilles sketch slanted little fragments of life, with a chronically upbeat approach that also recalls the Apples in Stereo.

First, there are the misfit protagonists, from the restaurant co-workers in the charged-up opening track, “A Little More Time” (“you’re a disaster just like me / breaking plates and spilling things”) to the girl trapped mid-traffic in “Caught In A Crosswalk,” the clubhopping nightbirds of “Have You Seen Them?,” and the slackers hitting on each other at night in a park in “Moves.”

A geeky strain of absurdity also rescues these songs from pop conventions. On “Where Did My Summer Go?” with its “Penny Lane”-like trumpet, the singers freak out over a summer storm (“A crack of thunder / From Olympus / And we’re under our beds”); on “Sweet and Sour,” a fumbling couple “didn't know where our tongues go / And they were not slow." Accepting one's inner dork is presented practically as a zen exercise in "Slip A Little and Then BOOM!"

If the songs are mostly random vignettes rather than Major Epiphanies, well, that’s the postmodern sensibility for you. The only thing that comes even close to a philosophy of life is the deceptively bright “Everybody Looks Not Everybody Finds,” and even there, exactly what human beings should be looking for (but can't find) is never spelled out. (It took several listens for me to pick up on the beyond-the-grave perspective of this one.)

What they're looking for, though, is probably love, that eternal pop music topic – there’s romance in the air throughout this album, even if it's not always the forever-and-ever kind of love (check out the gauzy “Staying There For a While” or the winsome seduction of “Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile).” Their characters are reckless, awkward, endearingly goofy romantics, like in “The Apartment,” where new lovers exult “Don’t wanna go home” even as they giddily admit “we may need vaccinations.” Even an ex-partner is deliberately remembered with affection in "It's A Red Fade That Leaves in a Warm Way."

Full disclosure: songwriter/singer/guitarist Rob Keith teaches at my kids’ school, and we’ve chatted about music; once I even sold him extra tickets to a Ray Davies concert. But I’m convinced that I’d have liked this CD even if I didn’t know anybody in the band. (Frankly, I'm just grateful that knowing Rob led me to discover this band's music.)  And though I was charmed by their low-fi debut Baskervilles, I see a huge leap forward with this third album. Though they’ve added horns and strings, the sound is never over-produced – it simply offers a greater variety of ways for them to deliver those catchy pop hooks. (The one exception is a track called “Smash,” a reworking of an earlier song called “This Was the Weekend,” which does seem overloaded with horns.)

Ultimately, it’s those tuneful hooks that prevail. And if the lyrics are a little off-kilter, so much the better.

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About Holly Hughes