After assessing the options for their second proper album, the Lemon Twigs settled on a concept record about a childless couple adopting a chimpanzee named Shane and raising it as a human boy who deals with bullying, ostracism and rejection by setting his school on fire. The other option, a more autobiographical collection of straight-forward pop songs, “didn’t feel like much of a risk,” co-founder Brian D’Addario has said.
The risks are as much musical as narrative: D’Addario, 21, and his brother, Michael, 19, go full-on musical theater on some tracks here, in between hopping nimbly through the sounds of 1970s rock. There’s arty bombast on “Rock Dreams,” wistful quavering power-pop on “Queen of My School”—you’d swear it was a Big Star outtake, complete with Alex Chilton’s guitar tone—and touches of prog throughout. Appropriately, ’70s rock veteran Todd Rundgren helps out on “Rock Dreams” as the chimp’s adopted dad (the D’Addarios’ mom, Sue Hall, voices the mother’s part), and takes over lead vocals on “Never Know,” threading his voice through an adroit arrangement of piano, squelchy wah-wah guitar and stacked vocals. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens lends a hand on “The Student Becomes the Teacher,” holding down a slow and steady beat that anchors swirls of strings and louche vocals.
Guests aside, the multi-instrumentalist D’Addario brothers mostly propel Go to School. They start with a burst of energy and melody in the taut guitar riff and soaring chorus on “Never in My Arms, Always in My Heart.” They lock in a hazy sunshine vibe on “Small Victories,” explore the anguished inner life of Shane’s tormentor amid stylized piano and horn flourishes on “Bully,” and mine a deep vein of melodrama on “Born Wrong/Heart Song.” With rich orchestrations, falsetto vocals and no rock instruments, the track is pure Broadway. It’s also the climactic moment of Go to School.
The album is dazzling in its ambition, not least because the Lemon Twigs are in earnest. Go to School seems at first to have a lot in common with the music of Sparks, which features another pair of brothers. Ron and Russell Mael also have a theatrical streak and an impressive command of musical sounds and styles, along with a propensity for sardonic lyrics and a deadpan delivery. The D’Addarios, by contrast, seem genuinely interested in sussing out the motives of their characters, and they work to make them more than caricatures. That is, for an operetta where no one questions why the protagonist is a chimpanzee passing for human and attending high school. Anyway, the bully, Shane, his parents: they’re complicated people, and the D’Addarios are sympathetic storytellers. True, it’s a batshit crazy story, but the Lemon Twigs make it compelling, highly tuneful and undoubtedly more memorable than an album of indie-pop songs would have been.