Merchandise's 'For The Masses' album is refreshingly laidback indie-pop with plenty of good old fashioned, twee charm. The downside, is that this record's refusal to slap you around the face with a shedload of shiny hooks, means that there's nothing here that'll hammer its way into your long term memory and have you hitting the 'repeat' button. The upside, is that this is a pleasant, bright and breezy antidote to mainstream pop.
Album-opener 'Listen Up!' is all shuffling drumbeats, breathy vocals and playfully clunky piano. Immediately, it becomes apparent that frontman Brad doesn't have a particularly strong voice, and the strain is sometimes audible, particularly on 'Substitute White Noise.' You may even come to suspect that he's cunningly crossed the border from 'singing' to 'speaking in tune' without it being immediately apparent. However, there's a warmth to his voice that perfectly compliments 'For The Masses's dewy, watercolour soundscapes.
Second track 'Sometimes' is very nearly another perfect indie-pop heart-warmer, ala 'Listen Up!' but the female backing vocals feel a little too glossy for the rest of the song. Niggles aside, this is a mock-sorrowful tale about no-one calling you on the telephone, which soon takes a more optimistic turn amongst jaunty piano refrains and springy acoustic strumming.
'Best Idea' and 'Substitute White Noise' have a more folkish slant. With 'Best Idea,' a vague smile is audible in every tinkling piano note and random outburst of "bah-da-ba-da!" vocals. It's song that'll never rock the airwaves, but it makes you feel everything's alright with the world. This folky charm is put to the test, as Brad repeatedly veers off course during 'Substitute White Noise,' but this song survives his occasional duff note - just.
'For The Masses' isn't all a dreamy-eyed stroll through sunny cornfields; Merchandise hit a more sorrowful note with 'Glitterati' and 'You Were Right.' The former takes the usual Merchandise fodder of twinkly piano strains and wafting vocals, but the riff that bends back and forth across the song has a wailing edge, while the blurry-eyed alt-pop of 'You Were Right' has its own mournful guitar line. Two pretty and wistful tracks, wrapped up in twee bows.
When it comes to 'Enemy' there's something reminiscent of Canadian indie-rockers Metric, in how Merchandise use distortion to pick up the pace without making unrealistic demands on their breathy-voiced frontman. 'Enemy' has an unusual backdrop of tinny riffs that jab and jag around a piston-like pump of drums and the occasional spasm of skittering synths. It should be an uncomfortable listen, but Merchandise seal these disparate elements together with a crunch of static. An album highlight.
Merchandise miss the mark on four occasions, with 'Lonesome Beauty,' 'Hard To Sleep,' 'Sonora Dance Band' and 'Prescription.'
'Prescription' is one of those unengaging songs that works itself into a rut early on, and then rolls comfortably along, while 'Hard To Sleep' is a dragging, maudlin piano ballad, and 'Lonesome Beauty' very nearly gets there, but doesn't quite fit together right. The skittering drums jar against the soulful vocals, and both jar against the random spattering of piano keys. If that vigorously skittering beat was softened, or if Brad traded his mellow tones for something a little more sparky, then 'Lonesome Beauty' would feel more like a coherent whole.
The less said about 'Sonora Dance Band,' the better. It may subscribe to the school of the 'mid-album experimental interlude,' but it's still an irritating, and rather pointless, song where voices drone "ooooh-ahhhh-woooo-ahhhh-ah-ah" and blur in and out of hearing, and nothing much else happens.
It isn't all bad news when Merchandise try something a little different. On 'Travelling, Unravelling' Merchandise pick up the pace - crucially, without losing cohesion. This time around, the pumping drumbeat is worked into the song with the aid of some lively starburst guitar-scratching. The sound of a band stepping out of their comfort zone, and making it work.
Merchandise's 'For The Masses' is, at its heart, a pop album, but one that's delivered with an unpolished charm. While a big chorus or a shiny hook would have made this record more memorable, a big chorus or a shiny hook would have also destroyed the mood of 'For The Masses.' Refreshingly laidback and understated, this is pop music that wasn't written for the charts.