For their last few albums, The Ladybug Transistor have been moving toward a heavily insulated (if not downright tranquilized
) folk-rock sound -- the sort of thing I, for one, associate with "beautiful music" radio stations, lingering headaches, Sunday afternoon trips to stores that sell garden statuary, and yellowing photographs of relatives wearing the sort of luridly plaid clothing people only ever seem to wear in yellowing photographs. If you can't divine the compliment in that sentence, I'll explain it in less eccentric terms: the group's dense arrangements achieve an impressive stillness. So tightly do the songs wrap around you, and so thoroughly do they block out other sensory input, that you'll swear the music was written for you alone.
That's why The Ladybug Transistor is something of an about-face for the group. For the first time, they've gone outside their Marlborough Farms compound, putting recording duties in the capable hands of Wavelab Studios' Craig Schumacher. With a "middleman" between band and listener, the aforementioned one-to-one connection loses a bit of its intensity, as if the group has taken a half-step backward and is now content to linger in the outer reaches of your personal space. Lest you misunderstand, this is not a failure but a sign of artistic maturity; like the clingy girlfriend/boyfriend who wakes up one morning and discovers self-confidence, Gary Olson and his bandmates have realized that we'll pay attention to them even if they don't get all cloying on us (though in all fairness, they did cloying really well). It's fitting, then, that The Ladybug Transistor have waited until now to release a self-titled album. The Ladybug Transistor is a veritable reboot.
Ladybug frontman Gary Olson is still a crooner. In an age when most indie bands pursue unaffectedness to a fault, he teeters on the edge of lounge singer parody, and because The Ladybug Transistor's production has backed off of the whole Huge Wet-Blankety Arms Wrapping Around You immersiveness and weapons-grade reverb thing, his performance sticks out a little bit more this time around. He goes over the top in a few places -- I noticed it in "NY - San Anton" and the over-enunciated, Jim Ruiz-haunted "Choking on Air" -- but it's not unpleasant; you may simply wonder where the sincere emoting ends and the Brooklyn hipster irony kicks in. Or perhaps it's just the incongruity of hearing such a big voice coming out of such a lanky guy. Sasha Bell tackles lead vocals on "The Places You'll Call Home" and "Hangin' on the Line", and her intriguingly nasal delivery suggests a handful of sixties icons, Nico included. "Hangin' on the Line" offers a particular challenge: it's the album's most vigorous tune, more conventionally upbeat and "rocking" than most of the group's material, and riddled with unusual rhythmic switches. If you're not thrown by the chorus's initially unpredictable turns, it's because Bell has you hooked.
Musically, The Ladybug Transistor is par for the band's multi-instrumental course -- it's jam-packed with keyboards, strings and horns, and violin, cello and pedal steel enhance a handful of songs. Sometimes this works against the group; Olson's vocals notwithstanding, the sleepy, pedal-steel-accented "3=Wild" sounds like too many other songs on too many other relatively current albums (I can already see myself overusing the phrase "ubiquitous pedal steel" in the coming months). Otherwise, Ladybug Transistor deliver on our heightened expectations. We know they're capable of something more than the standard guitar/bass/drums troika, and they prove us right -- but with admirable restraint. Nothing here sounds like an instrumental stunt.
Lyrically, the group still strives for a mix of bookish profundity and emotional shorthand; if you're lucky enough to derive deeper meaning from these lyrics (it's likely to be a right-place, right-time thing), you'll think Olson and his cohorts are brilliant. There are a few "what the fuck" moments, like "Song for the Ending Day"'s woodsy opening lines ("It could take a year to climb all the hills in the Catskills"), but the album's obligatory cover -- Jackie DeShannon's florid "Splendor in the Grass" -- is a timely reminder of what truly ham-fisted prose sounds like ("The first time I was ever kissed / the very first person I did miss").
The Ladybug Transistor's relative lack of instrumental bravado suggests renewed confidence; the group doesn't make an obvious attempt to hook us with atmosphere or instrumental stunts, because the album already has enough going on to keep us listening. They are still capable of brilliance, but no longer pursue it so doggedly. They entertain us, because they (and we) know they can. Like the album cover's smooth, clean lines (another break with Ladybug tradition), their songs have been relieved of clutter and baggage and needless filigree, leaving the best and purest ideas to flourish. It's an important step for a band poised on the edge of great success -- and a decisive move beyond the limitations of yellowing photos and barbituate-friendly folk-rock.