The summer sun is certainly making a hearty go of it these days, burning a hole in the country’s wearily parched midsection (I was always a cloudy day man to begin with, but it has gotten to the point now where the sight of cloudless skies actually depresses me). The bludgeoning rays have wreaked havoc on more than just the brown lawns and the now-dormant flowering bulbs, but also the psyches of those who have had to adjust in light of Mother Nature’s distinct lack of precipital assistance. Those on the periphery have also had their share of meteorological misgivings, with hurricanes in the Gulf region, soaring mercuries in the southwest and upper Plains, and the occasional rampaging Tigers relief pitcher in the general Detroit Metro area. As for the genteel fellows in Los Angelinos Marjorie Fair, however, the heart of the matter lies not in the extremes represented by the reds and whites of the weatherman’s Chroma key, but in a perpetually pleasant, comfortable state of affairs where the pace is deliberate, the spirit melancholy and the sun partner to a picturesque backdrop rather than an oppressive seasonal guest.
In all fairness, artists like the Beatles and Neil Young have become a superfluous reference point for all guitar-based pop bands that have come since them, and Marjorie Fair is no exception. Some bands may sound more like the Beatles, and some may sound less like them, but somehow it always inevitably comes back to the Fab Four, whether you hear it right away or not. In the case of Marjorie Fair, the end result falls on the “more” side. The guitars jangle, the harmonies are silky smooth, and lead Marjorie Evan Slamka writes tunes that uncannily evoke the lovey, languorous vibe of late-1960’s pop. Toss that into a blender with the album’s amazing A-list pedigree (producer Rob Schnapf, whose resume includes Beck, Foo Fighters and Jimmy Eat World, though his work with Richard Thompson and Elliott Smith would seem most pertinent here; Jon Brion and Joey Waronker also play a big part, while Jim Keltner, Billy Preston, Luis Conte, Roger Manning and mixer extraordinaire Tom Lord-Alge each pop in for a track), and the sky would seem to be the limit for this bunch.
On occasion, everything does coagulate, and those moments are readily apparent when put up against the rest of the album, but it isn’t all strawberry fields here.
Lead single “Empty Room” is a dynamite piece of music, a gorgeous midtempo number with an appropriately bleak chorus (“I don’t want to go, but if I die young / Fill my empty room with the sun…”). It’s the closest thing to early vintage Coldplay since Snow Patrol put out “Run.” The chorus will likely linger in your head for long periods of time. “Waves” is the record’s lone uptempo track, “uptempo” used in a relative sense, as the rest of the album is decidedly uniform in its elegiac tendencies. Slamka is blessed with a very soothing voice, which serves the gentle nature of the material well, though in the event of the occasional sweeping chorus (as in “Empty Room”) he proves quite capable.
While Self Help Serenade may not sound like a risky proposition on first listen (it may even sound almost excessively trepidant and introverted), what may be its defining upside for some may be its primary shortcoming for others. The band’s emphasis on texture and atmospherics comes at the price of pacing and momentum, as the unhurried, sleepy tempos begin to pile up without much variation. “Empty Room” and “Waves” are the only songs that break with the rest of the record, though the odd waltz or two does appear in “Cracks in the Wall” and “Silver Gun,” even if they don’t dare to step out of line. For a pop record, it’s a challenging listen, though that is something that would hypothetically play into their favor in the long run.
Self Help Serenade is best consumed as a whole, which may prove to be more or less of a challenge, depending on whether you possess the time and/or the patience to consume what turns out to be less an album of notable moments than one of a distinct timbre and tone. In an era where album success is driven by a series of catchy radio singles, this may be more difficult than usual for a band like Marjorie Fair. Most of the notable contributors are used only sparingly, which leaves the young band to take care of business mostly on their own. They do have their moments in the sun, showing heaps of promise, but more often than not the end result winds up exposing the group’s rough edges, which is unavoidable, even more so in the case of a skilled collective such as this.
Capitol is without a doubt trying to piggyback Marjorie Fair onto the success of like-minded labelmates Coldplay, but there is little that even a major label can do to combat the obligatory effects of inexperience. An auspicious opening salvo like “Empty Room” may duly send them on their way, but as with the rest of the album itself, time can only serve as an aide.