The most striking moments from Atlanta dream-rock collective the Back Pockets' first two CDs, Beautiful Crappy Demo and Blissters and Basements, weren't found in leading lady Emily Kempf's obtuse songwriting, but in the militantly homemade qualities of both recordings. Likewise, during live shows the 16-person ensemble's penchant for utilizing absurd, sometimes disturbing performance art antics tends to draw attention away from the musicality on display. It's an aesthetic choice used to create an atmosphere of surreal shock and awe by way of sensory overload. But while processing so much noise and spectacle, it's easy to overlook Kempf's ability to craft some damn fine songs. Hello Dandelion is her first attempt to let the songwriting take the reins.
The tightened focus is highlighted by a trumpet that swells and fades into the album's opening number, "Bulla." It's an epic start for the Back Pockets as the song materializes as the most professional effort the group has released thus far. Not only is it a clean recording — a complete 180 from the hiss and mangled folk strum of the previous two CDs — it's tastefully arranged, executed, mixed and produced. In short, it just sounds good.
Hello Dandelion is a bold and dramatic step up for the Back Pockets, but the album lacks stylistic cohesion, which isn't out of the ordinary and definitely signifies the shape of things to come.
The warm, analog sound captured by the album's co-producer/engineer Cyrus Shahmir (the N.E.C.) draws out a pop cadence that's been hiding in Kempf's damaged, art-hippie mantras all along. The trumpet that flares up in "Bulla" resonates with the epic stride of "Bus Song" and wraps the album in a singular, textural package.
The album is full of strong moments that come to a head on "Lovelike" and "Broken Glass," though none surpass the full-bodied and infectious revisit to "Australia" — which previously appeared in a more primitive state as "Australia Blissters" on Blissters and Basements, and is the obvious candidate for a single here. Britt Tuesink's guitar and Kempf's sparkling banjo collide in an atmosphere created by an echoing slide on steel strings, violin and staccato drumming that reaches a higher level of musicianship than anything the group has shown yet.
Halfway through "Lovelike," Kempf sings to a troublesome lover, "Your love is like a side of guac, extra." It's an awkward, albeit extreme metaphor, but it's reflective of the kind of whimsical but concrete lyrical devices she employs.
The flow of the CD is interrupted by a voice mail, dubbed "Henry," in which a lone male voice lays out a plan to dress the band as animals that will transform into creatures with tinfoil hats. It's a quirky and cute interlude that represents the band's performance art side, but is nevertheless a speed bump. The techno track that follows, "Making Out Is Great," is slightly confusing as well, although less bothersome within the context of the album than it was when it hit the Internet during the weeks leading up to the record's release. Despite being out of character, it serves as a palette cleanser that eases into the rest of the album as Kempf does her best Kylie Minogue impersonation to the tune of an Orbital beat.
The choice to include two different versions of "Libraries" is a bit strange as well. Granted, each version is radically different from the other, but the reverb-heavy second coming at the end of the album just feels excessive.
With a slightly more judicious edit, Hello Dandelion could have been a sleek, flawless and concise record, and compared to the previous two CDs, it is. But words like "sleek, flawless and concise" are directly at odds with Kempf's stunning jumble of ideas; the Back Pockets have never been about making things neat and tidy. Therein lies the truly beautiful conflict that holds Hello Dandelion together and allows the group's personality to shine brighter than ever before.
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