In my youth, I listened almost exclusively to my local oldies station. At a very young age, I became familiar with groups like the Beatles, the Temptations and the Kinks, and singers like Lesley Gore and B. J. Thomas. To this day, I get a nostalgic feeling approaching childhood euphoria whenever I hear something that reminds me of those old songs, a feeling that most certainly arose while listening to Secret Cities’ Strange Hearts.
Like many indie rock groups harboring a lo-fi aesthetic, Secret Cities is heavily indebted to the psychedelic and garage rock sounds of the ’60s. Yet where a more derivative and less creative act might fall into the trap of unofficially being a tribute act, this group actually gets the atmosphere and aesthetic right. They have the requisite echo chamber, tambourine, chiming guitars, vocal harmonies and bubbly melodies. But on top of the proper melodic formula, Secret Cities also have the tinges of melancholy and whimsy that emanated from many great classics. The latter of these is most appealing as any angst-ridden twentysomething can make sadness sound sexy, but it takes a particular skill to do likewise with a more playful sensibility.
From the first track “Always Friends,” we’re treated to something that Jay & the Americans could’ve done. The melody bobs up and down and twists in an unexpected, yet pleasing fashion. Furthermore, the whole album is laced with the rich sounds of 1960s AM pop in the most glorious ways: Kinks-esque music hall (“Love Crime”), Petula Clark girl-pop (“Pebbles”), and vaguely Eastern touches that groups like the Hollies and the Turtles indulged in (“Brief Encounter”).
I have a tendency to give many modern groups a lot of flak for mimicking old sounds without bringing anything new to the table. Yet the difference between this band and less successful acts with a similar approach is Secret Cities has not only the sound of the past, but also the feeling. Secret Cities may not break any musical boundaries with this release, but they certainly have one of the best new albums I’ve heard all year.
The Olivia Tremor Control – Music from an Unrealized Script, Dusk at the Cubist Castle
She & Him – Volume One
The Turtles – The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands
MP3: “Love Crime”