Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Reviews: Cosmic Rough Riders/Daniel Wylie

The Cosmic Rough Riders (in their original incarnation) were a briefly-lived, little-known but much-loved band of Scottish mellow popsters following closely in the footsteps of countrymen Teenage Fanclub -- in other words, lots of jangly guitars, simple melodies, and soaring harmonies. And much as with TF's later albums, the CRRs had a few painfully wonderful songs tucked in among a fair amount of bland (though thoroughly unobjectionable) filler. They split up after just a few singles & albums, only to return in 2004 in two halves: Lead singer Daniel Wylie put out a solo album, Ramshackle Beauty, while the rest of the band soldiered on under the Cosmic Rough Riders moniker, releasing Too Close To See Far. Surprisingly, both albums turned out far better than one would have expected; rather than two halves being less than the whole (see, e.g., the post-Olivia Tremor Control splinter bands for a sad example of that; or, for that matter, our old friends the Beatles), we got two new albums that are every bit as good as the original.

In other words -- decent, bland, but ultimately pleasantly enjoyable as inconsequential background pop. CRR's Too Close sounds... well, a lot like Wylie-era CRR (and, again, like latter day Teenage Fanclub). Guitars still jangle, harmonies still soar. The lead vocals are marginally less distincitve than Wylie's, but his was never a terribly distinctive voice to begin with, so the change is almost immaterial. For better or worse, no matter how many hooks they throw at you, the album never quite rises above "pretty good." For a US analogy, consider Matthew Sweet side project The Thorns -- yes, the songs are pretty, the vocals lovely, a few tracks even downright catchy, but when it's over can you name more than 2 or 3 of these? Probably not. But slide this puppy into the disc player next time you entertain, and nobody's gonna complain -- pure likeability. Then we've got Wylie's album, which, when you come right down to it, is pretty much the same thing. Jangling guitars, pop hooks, soaring harmonies. Ramshackle Beauty might be the marginally edgier affair, with a few tracks that break the mold here and there (i.e. some punched up guitar distortion or new wavey keyboard fills), and Wylie's vocals have a more noticeable nasal quality to 'em -- at times I'm reminded of Weezer, or even They Might Be Giants. Pushed to choose between the two, I'd have to pick Wylie's as the slightly more interesting disc, with the CRRs' as the slightly more smoothly palatable one. Fortunately, there's no reason to choose, and any fan of mellow indie pop, while no doubt living a perfectly contented life without either of these, would be perfectly happy with both. (Unfortunately, the Wylie disc is much harder to find in the States, available only as a high-priced import.)


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