The Great Pretenders
How do you make existential despair sound like fun? Pop music has wrestled with this conundrum forever. Or perhaps I should say, good pop music has done so – the throwaway stuff has always stuck to the surface concerns, the easy emotions, the puppies and unicorns and “I’ll love you forever” stuff. Pop’s dark underbelly, meanwhile, has wrestled with the tougher stuff, be it Jim Morrison wondering what might happen if one dared to “take the highway to the end of the night,” to Phil Spector finding pathos through the generous application of reverb and making “Be My Baby” sound like a desperate cry from the soul, or Prince noting that the death of human love sounds a lot like the mournful cry of a dove.
All of these songs are major bummers in their way, but all were also huge hits. Los Angeles trio the Mini Mansions has packed sophomore effort “The Great Pretenders” with bittersweet tunes that, in a perfect world, would also be big hits. Though the sort of thinking man’s psychedelic pop Michael Shuman, Tyler Parkford and Zachary Dawes gather in service for their second album might be a little too weird for the full-on mainstream. If one can imagine Ween’s goofy-but-beautiful “White Pepper” fused with ELO’s” “Out of the Blue,” and then covered by the Cars, circa “Candy-O,” then one might be able to take “The Great Pretenders” in the spirit with which it’s being offered. Avant-pop with lyrics detailing the daily dance with despair might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Makes for a good, strong, frothy stout, though.
It’s not particularly useful to know that Shuman doubles as a full member of Queens of the Stone Age, because there are few parallels between the two projects, beyond a consistent spirit of invention. An album that is able to deliver the space-funk-disco of opener “Freakout!” and then a mere five songs later, invite Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson aboard for the reach-for-the-sky harmonies elevating “Any Emotions” is painting with a broad palette. “Mirror Mountain” is downright spooky in its Doors-meets-Nine Inch Nails ambience. “The End, Again” views life as Sisyphean struggle, and wallows in billowing clouds of lovely gloom. “Vertigo” is anthemic without being overbearingly so, and might appeal to fans of Animal Collective’s more ruminative fare, or MGMT minus the drugs.
“The Great Pretenders” is often startlingly good. When it falls just short of that marker, it’s still well worth hearing. Shuman and Company make being mildly bummed out sound like a badge of honor.
- Jeff Miers