Though the fault lies far more with the limitations of our language than any protestations of musical dominance by the boys in the band, supergroup still seems an awfully odd choice of words for Future Lives, the new Athens-based temp combo with membership plucked from, among others, Japancakes, Drive-By Truckers and King of Prussia. But how else to describe this Southern crossing of alt.country vets and indie-folk fellow travelers?
Athenaeum would at least credit the famed Georgian college town responsible for first assembling more than a baker’s dozen of likeminded y’allternative talents for a low-impact ramble through familiar byways. Suppergroup provides some hint of the setting where both the project may have originated and where debut release Mansions shall most appropriately be heard.
For that matter, in the spirit of unsubtle contributions and hamfisted interplay, why not just jam a few names together? Drive-By Japan or King Of Truckers both make a certain amount of sense given the album’s peripatetic themes, and, considering the central role of former-KOP frontman Brandon Taj Hanick midst preparation, King Of Cakes feels especially apropos. Even if strictly following Hanick’s recipe, too many cooks always spoil the mix
From the album’s earliest moments, as what appears to be the early a cappella strains of an impromptu Eastern Bloc drinking song finds itself overtaken by perfectly-lovely/vividly-inessential rootsy stroll “Kazakhstan,” two things should be clear. There’s a fitfully-recurring notion of ‘Americana abroad’-itinerary passing through jaunty Laurel Canyon frug (“California Vibe”) with brief psych-shimmer stopover (“The Sound Of Spain”). And this is hardly a budget trip.
If that first track’s chugalug strum indulges a decorous austerity, the handful of sprightlier tunes that follow telegraph a daunting provenance. Notably, “St John’s Fair” incorporates a British Invasion effervescence replete with ‘whoooo’-ing chorus girls and spectral glissandos while “Dancing With The Stars” wraps a singer-songwriter-styled trifle tight around its outsized hook for terrace-shaking folk-pop anthem. Both tracks are strong enough to survive, respectively, an extended flute solo and lyric-referencing birdsong, but why burden decent tunes with showily-pointless gimmickry more befitting the real King of Prussia’s court, whether monarch or megamall?
These odd flourishes of whimsy or overheated ambition never entirely derail the album. Nobody’s rounding up a children’s choir or renting out the philharmonic. Set against the grand annals of recording excess, Future Lives barely moves the needle, but that makes the sheer wrongness of certain elements feel all the more garishly misplaced. Within an atmosphere of tasteful restraint, relatively minor misfires can nevertheless actively overshadow the quiet elegance of Mansions’ finer moments.
Much of “The Strangest Dreams”, spare guitar figure rubbing up against breathy vocals, plays out like Hanick’s solo work. He’s a born troubadour’s knack for captivating intimacy, but the continuous insertion of spare, damnably ill-fitting parts keep triggering sirens of schlock artifice. Forget the cricket-sounds outro. Ignore the backing vocals’ halting appearance mid-chorus. That third verse horn accompaniment as distracting as reveille and utterly antithetical to the supple pleasures of a sinuous songcraft demonstrably capable of gathering momentum on its own.
For all the travelogue trappings, the details behind this album’s conception might also explain its title. Mansions is, above all else, a resoundingly comfortable collection of songs done by people with little to prove. If not quite the sort of LP that lets the bacchanal surrounding its production seep inside the music, the air of pleasant professionalism corrupted by groupthink weirdness does nod toward one of those ventures sparked more by mutual affection than anything as artistically fruitful as passion or poverty.
In that way, consider Mansions a lovingly-burnished reverie from enlightened caretakers of this New South, where old acquaintances trade bespoke jars of single-barrel moonshine to toast the micro-plantation’s arugula crop and talk collaboration. That might be a wonderful place to live, but would you want to visit?