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All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray. Could there be a better time for some good-old-fashioned California dreamin’? Just be aware that your spirit guides for today are short, dark-haired, and a little unhealthy-looking, and that they come from a windswept, cuisine-free place that would make most Golden Staters run screaming for emergency salt-glow treatments. You see, the misty, vintage West Coast pop you’re hearing on the Thrills’ debut long-player was made by five young Dubliners, who know a thing or two about gray skies.
But they’ve dreamed of California, honest. In fact, much of So Much for the City was written in San Diego, where the ardent Beach Boys fans decamped for a four-month working pilgrimage before returning to the Emerald Isle, recording some demos, and signing to a local label. What’s odd about this situation is that the Thrills’ Flying Breaded-Haddock Brothers act actually worked, and the band and its soaring harmonies were soon the object of a full-blown British Isles bidding war, with the group quickly ditching the indie and getting snapped up by Virgin.
I can’t speak to the economic wisdom of such decisionsyou’d have to ask the guy who signed the High Llamas, whose work the Thrills’ somewhat resembles. Or maybe the guy who signed the Apples in Stereo. Both outfits pledge allegiance to Brian Wilson, and both, in terms of major-label sales expectations, kind of stank up the record racks. Yeah, they made a lot of rock critics very happy, but they’re both back in the minors. So why should things be different this time around?
Well, despite that unhealthy glow, the Thrills are young and cute. But more important, So Much for the City is a good, even borderline-great record, primarily because the Thrills have figured out something most Wilson followers haven’t: how to be a band. They don’t retreat into their sandboxes for months at a time looking for the right pipe-organ sound; they figure out how to play their songs with the instruments they’ve got. (And, OK, a few choice overdubs.) Much of the album is built around the simple but sturdy sounds of Kevin Horan’s cowpoke piano and Dan Ryan’s only slightly less countrified banjo, a combination effective enough that frontman Conor Deasy can concentrate on just being a good singernot some knob-twiddling maestro whose studio wizardry deserves more attention than his songs.
They’re good ones, too, if a bit predictable in a certain Owen Bradley-meets-Van Dyke Parks kinda way. Album-opener “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far),” for example, establishes Deasy as a man unafraid to sing in an American accent (“Sanna Crooo-oooz”) about drunken mishaps and living by the ocean. The track begins languidly, then bursts into a slow-motion bluegrass hook that carries Deasy over repeated declarations of “Santa Cruz, you’re not that far.” True, the lyrics are a bit oblique: “Well tell me where it all went wrong/And tell me where you lost those damn songs/I can’t say I was surprised/I heard a drink was involved.” Is Deasy addressing the California city? A friend with a drinking problem? But by the time the other guys join him on the harmonies, deeper meaning isn’t really that important. The song sounds great, and summer is instantly back.
But the Thrills are Irish, so they know that warm weather never lasts. “Well, the bottom fell out on our summer,” Deasy whispers on “Deckchairs and Cigarettes.” “But we knew what we got ourselves into.” With the looming autumn hinted at with plodding piano and wistful strings, the track is darker than most of So Much for the City, but it doesn’t exactly express some hidden sinister side to Deasy & Co.’s California dream. For that, see “Hollywood Kids”: “Oh the death of a fast life,” Deasy sings over some surprisingly Goth guitar, sounding like Wayne Coyne after a junior year abroad. “Those Hollywood stars got to pay.” By the song’s end, he’s wondering whether those kids on Sunset with their big cars and big smiles are really as happy as they seem. “So look closer,” he sings. “Do you still think that/…those Hollywood kids got it made?”
“One Horse Town” is more comfortable territory for the boys, and it shows: Rather than a dilettantish (if agreeable) stab at American myth-busting, this is a classic rock ‘n’ roll story of a kid who “never should have settled down” set to a Motown beat. He should have gotten out earlier”[w]hen everyone started sleeping around,” as Deasy puts ithe’s jealous of his friend who’s just gotten back from traveling, his in-laws are making him nuts, and, by gum, he’s buying a one-way ticket outta here tonight. Given that the average age of the Thrills hovers at around 23, it seems unlikely that any of this comes by way of hard-won experience. But it’s a lot easier to relate to than “Big Sur,” an evocation of a “steam boat show” gone wrong.
It also suggests why Deasy might make a good Californian after all. In fact, the disc’s overarching storyline is West Coast-iconic: small kid, big dreams, with maybe a screenplay thrown in there somewhere. How else to explain the protagonist of “‘Til the Tide Creeps In,” an author whose agent is keeping his publishing house at bay by claiming he’s got writer’s block, when in reality he’s just fucking around up in the hills, in love and out of ideas? Or the underachiever of the hidden track “Plans,” who works in a service station upstate and worries that his girl is gonna head down to L.A., where “some lowlife B-movie producer” will corrupt her? Maybe he should just grow up: “She said, Everybody’s gotta have plans/’Cause I can’t see you smiling pumping gas.”
For Deasy, it seems, it’s not enough that his band’s story could make a pretty good movie on its ownassuming, of course, that he and childhood friend Ryan eventually develop some sort of conflict, split up, and triumphantly reunite years later after a chance meeting on a Malibu tennis court. But waitthere’s no need to write a whole script when you’ve already got a killer treatment. And that’s exactly what So Much for the City is: Its elements may be familiar on their own, but together they make the story seem almost new. CP