Call it sugary sweet with a teaspoon of twee. Call it endearing, poignant, and at times, even precious. But whatever you do, don’t call it bubblegum pop. New Zealand’s latest brown-locked duo (excepting Bret and Jermaine, of course) want you to know that if there is one thing they aren’t, it’s another pop ensemble with candy-coated chords and a penchant for wildly varied instrumentation. Husband and wife (awww isn’t that cute) Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield are harbingers of a rather sophisticated indulgence, a no-white-after-Labor-Day mentality that still manages to have a hell of a lot of fun.
Their stateside debut (following two full-lengths on New Zealand ‘s Lil’ Chief Records) finds these non-blondes primped and preened for a promising career. While Structure and Cosmetics may lack some of the immediacy of 2004’s Mars Loves Venus, there’s still plenty to love here. And, dare I say it, it’s more mature (although you won’t find any witty Chomsky references). Bree and Mansfield cover most of the instrumental duty, among them glockenspiel, clarinet, harmonica, piano (Heather), and guitar, bass, drums, synthesizer, mellotron (Jonathan).
The aptly titled “B-A-B-Y (Brunettes Against Bubblegum Youth)” comes swooning through a cloud of handclaps and parade worthy horns. It’s undoubtedly more fun to see live, where the whole band dons Mary Kate and Ashley masks, but it translates well enough on record. It’s the perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with the band’s unique aesthetic (think a slightly less hyperactive Architecture In Helsinki). “Her Hairagami Set” shivers along a suave guitar progression and understated synth even as it evolves into a chorus of hums for an extended outro. And of course, Mansfield ‘s vocals are as saccharine as ever.
Bree shoulders singing duties for “Credit Card Mail Order,” a sort of ’60s-soul endeavor lightened by his droll delivery. The title track sets a barb in all those closely listening fashionistas: “discipline in argyle/ I want diamond patterned fever/ socks and knitted v-necks” as (and this is the best part) a harmonica croons sadly in the background. While there are occasional monotonous slip-ups (“Stereo (Mono Mono)”) or a lamentable stray into the maudlin (“If You Were Alien”), the individual pieces keep the whole from leaving a sour taste in your mouth.
After gaining a bit of well-deserved notoriety by opening for The Shins and Rilo Kiley, with Structure and Cosmetics The Brunettes seem destined for their own time in the spotlight. All that without having to dye their hair (they’ve got the roots to prove it).
The Pipettes – We Are The Pipettes
Rilo Kiley – The Execution Of All Things
Belle & Sebastian – The Boy With The Arab Strap
MP3: “Small Town Crew”