Originality can be overrated. Notice my use of the word `can’ rather than `is.’ Not every band can be groundbreaking, and most usually aren’t. There’s a rather fine line between blending one’s influences in a new and exciting way, and simply following a pattern. Even then, I don’t mind listening to an unoriginal band if they play the kinds of music I enjoy extraordinarily well. For instance, in the early to mid ’90s, Britpop was all the rage, carbon copied and released in droves every week. The originals, such as Blur and Oasis, far outlasted most of their competitors, but there were some that remain my personal favorites because of talent trumping uniqueness. (Case in point, Gene). Currently, in Southern California, Angelenos are experiencing some kind of en masse appreciation for their own musical past, the Laurel Canyon scene in particular. Biirdie are merely the latest, and probably not the last, ensemble to hop onto that particular stylish bandwagon with their latest release, Catherine Avenue.
If the last Rilo Kiley album left you disappointed, and you were instead looking for the next logical hybrid of More Adventurous and Rabbit Fur Coat, then Catherine Avenue might be right up your alley. The great thing happens to be, if that’s what you’ve been missing, here it is. The problem is, we’ve heard all of this before. Catherine Avenue has everything Rilo has, or at least had. Songs are both rooted in a city’s lyrical past and its desultory present, dropping references all along the way. Hell, while Rilo boasts two child actors, Biirdie has at least a token sibling in Kala Savage (sister of Fred and Ben, and Fred’s early connection with Jenny Lewis has certainly seemed to rub off on Kala).
(Side note: what is it about L.A. bands constantly making shout-outs to particular hometown neighborhoods? Of course, it’s never about Alhambra or even Westwood. It’s always Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice, Silverlake, Griffith Observatory, or Crenshaw if you’re gangsta rap).
When Biirdie hit their marks, they certainly deliver the goods. The closing Grandaddy-like keyboard swells of “L.A. is Mars” sweep the listener effectively above the smog-infested (excuse me, ahem, marine layer) dirty streets of the city and into the winding hills of the canyon called Laurel. Their cover of the Texas Tornados’ “Who Were You Thinkin’ Of” becomes less a Tex-Mex jam and more of a whimsical ? and the Mysterians funfest. But, unfortunately, those songs are equally balanced on the other side by songs like the dirge-y and plodding “Life in a Box” and the seemingly forced banjo and vocals of “Estelle.” The latter is like trying to put Shaquille O’Neal into Keira Knightley’s dress from Atonement. In other words, like trying to force a sausage into a straw. Jared Flamm’s vocals, as well as the inserted banjo, are far too affected, as if trying to channel both Will Oldham and Conor Oberst at the same time. The problem being, when both have such a strong presence, they don’t blend well, like peanut butter and cucumbers. Blech.
Catherine Avenue certainly isn’t a bad record, and it has its share of songs that are well played and evocative of a sunnier time in the City of Angels. Through no fault of their own, it just happens to be a bit too little, too late. Of course, those looking for a Rilo Kiley, Jr. will likely be quite happy with the record, though even Rilo gravitated away from that milieu. In a musical landscape that’s found the aforementioned changing its tune, Grandaddy retired, the Mendoza Line erased, the Flying Burrito Brothers long since grounded and Fleetwood Mac’s chain broken long ago, there might just be plenty of room for Biirdie. But in a town besot with that much smog; potential fans will have to open both of those I’s, because their ears will already have heard most of it before.
Rilo Kiley- The Execution of All Things
Bright Eyes- Cassadaga
The Mendoza Line- If They Knew This Was the End