Written by: Dave Cantrell
Never let it be said that having friends in high pop places isn’t a potentially huge advantage. Just sixteen years old, with two EPs already under his belt, Max Bouratoglou, while without a doubt a young man with potential, doesn’t quite have the prodigy’s touch as one might assume given his history as a uniquely single-minded kid with ambitions to be a musician (fiddling with a red uke at two, writing songs by the time he was seven, all that). Laser-guided intention in itself is never enough – the diminishing stock at Goodwill of ballerina gear as the sizes increase is proof enough of that – nor is a strong, even advanced natal talent any guarantee of success – of which we all know too many examples to cite just one – but if your mom has been good friends with a renowned near-legendary indie musician since their college years, and that musician is named Ken Stringfellow and he’s generously open to mentoring you, your chances for exposure at the very least increase demonstrably.
Ideally at this point we’d say that Max Bouratoglou, on debut album Idle Intuition (released April 7th through Sony off-shoot CEN/RED), proves he’s learned well at the feet of his master and is ready to fly the nest in illustrious style. Alas, though that very conclusion may be reachable in the wake of his next album or the one after that, on the evidence here it’s still early days yet.
Essentially singer-songwriter fare turbo-boosted by an injection of power-pop sensibilities, the end product struggles to find purchase in the shaky ground between the two. Produced by Stringfellow, who also supplies (sublime) bass, keys, most ancillary percussion and backing vox – Max handling all lead vocals along with guitar and drums – that particular Posies punch is palpable through much of the album (check “Clay” especially) as well that classic Seattle band’s way with a poignant hook (“Strangers,” “Small”). What it can’t paper over, however, is Idle Intuition‘s central weakness, the sixth-form teenage poetry of the lyrics. One can’t wholly fault the kid for that, much of what he sings here of romantic heartache etc can only be speculation by this point in his life. And, yeah, by its nature the genre that Bouratoglou is at least half-leaning into is most effective the less prolix and more straightforward its sentiments are, but none of that is sufficient to counter the track-by-track incidence of, well, adolescent cringers in the rhyme scheme. That said, however, the naturalism of these songs’ deft structures points to a potential very very few of us could have claimed in our second year in high school. The foundation here makes the potential for growth intriguingly fertile. Let’s just say we’re looking forward to his sophomore, which is to say junior or senior, album.
Though purists and acolytes alike may lament the continued trend of artists capturing world musics, yoking them to virtual banks of digital electronics and dragging them over continents and oceans for the benefit of occidental ears, cries of “cultural appropriation” and “modern-day colonialism” echoing down the halls of all that’s good and just by their lights, a band like Flamingods is among many claiming, via their speaking-for-itself work alone, that it might be time for all such knee-jerking carriers of righteous indignation to chill the fuck out. Plus, please, this kind of cross-cultural experimentation has been going on in a respectful, mostly woke manner at least since My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and anyway, when the results are as deliciously compelling as the sinuous, adroit, brightly garlanded explorations found on this third Flamingods album, arguments cease and wonder begins.
While ‘only’ a five-piece, the sounds they make utilizing a dizzy panoply of instruments procured from around the world land them in a category of one, somewhere on the spectrum between a well-ordered collective and a subtle world symphony. Majesty, a 2016 UK release issued in the US this past March to coincide with an SXSW-anchored tour, doesn’t so much tick all the exotica/electronica boxes as melt them down then reshape them into their own uniquely euphonious constructs.
Beyond the late-night, more urban-bent chill-out groove of the opening title track that threads a fine line between a dissolute world-weariness and a resolute surrender to dawn’s oncoming spiritual quest – and which could be Gorillaz on a very good day – the tracklisting sets off on a sub-continental drift, the quintet gathering up their UN assembly of seldom-heard instruments (sarangi, taishogoto, darbuka, phin guitar) and giving voice to the wanderlust those objects are made of. The sunny complexity of the trance-ish “Jungle Birds,” with its flutey canopy, the oddly skipping floor of percussion layered below it, captures by implication the verdant surround asked of its title. “Taboo Groves,” as per its title, is instantly playful, flirty even, the urge to drink palm wine might well be irresistible. “Sarangi,” the droning mulchy sound of its title instrument suggesting the stringed equivalent of a Tuvan throat singer, exudes a lithesome, cobra-dancing psych vibe, while “Mountain Man” brings the album to an end in a joyous, jaunty mood, its nimbly racing pace somersaulting forward like enthusiasm made manifest, drums tumbling over tashigoto, marimba humming along, a synth bass so phat as to nearly mimic an oom-pah-pah tuba.
A breathless tour de force, grounded in a sense of set-free abandonment, it’s exactly the music one might imagine being made to celebrate the marriages of gods to mortals, a pairing that in fact mirrors the gist of this band’s charms.
Almost seems funny to think now as instances of it become rarer in this digitized atomized culture, but one of the coolest aspects of the classic DIY/punk years in the late 70’s early 80’s was the proliferation of independent record labels that often developed sound-style identities as distinct as the bands themselves. Factory, Object Music, Good Vibrations, Mute, SST, Frontier – it’s a very long list – all tended to produce records that exhibited a loosely-shared musical DNA, their stable of artists spinning outward from a general template that, though diverse and unique in the particulars, nonetheless gave the impression that they were all aesthetic cousins swinging off the branches of the same broad-limbed, strangely-shaped tree. Back there in the thick of things, when a new record came out on Creation, you had a strongly resonant ballpark idea of what it would sound like, and if you had a hankering for adventurously melodic rock’n’roll with a – for the most part – particularly British pop sensibility, you’d just buy it on spec. Before it all went a bit pear-shaped, it actually made a complete, kind of historic sense that Alan McGee signed Oasis.
In many ways, ‘those were the days,’ and thus it always makes aging music geeks almost irrationally happy to discover, as I lately have in the last couple years, a label like Mystery Lawn Music. Being tasked with reviewing Begin the Begone by label-founder Allen Clapp’s cult legend-status Orange Peels in 2015 unlocked a proverbial – and wonderfully profligate – Pandora’s box of the brightest, most literate, grown-up’s power-pop available on the open market, the label seemingly gathering under its aegis as many West Coast-based Big Star-shaped tendrils as it can manage. It’s no exaggeration to say one could build a desert-island library on the Mlm catalog alone, and the Flywheels’ long-simmering debut I’m For the Flowers does nothing but burnish that impression.
Though in the event a bittersweet affair – co-founder (with Kim Wonderley) Eric Scott passed in early 2016 – the record that ultimately resulted after a two-decade gestation could hardly be a better tribute to not only the duo’s enduring pop prowess but to the inarguable notion that, when done this well, this type of rock music, suffused with a spangly melancholy that transmutes sorrow to joy, could damn near heal the sick.
Graciously supplemented by the likes of Clapp, the tireless Scott McCaughey, the equally tireless Peter Buck, and a few Smithereens besides (plus a Flamin’ Groovie in the form of Roy Loney), not to mention an engineering assist from Chris Von Sneidern, the album is indeed the pair’s dream fully realized. The punchy kiss-off indictment of the Wonderley-sung “Hello Cruel World” makes a guy almost yearn to be called out for his asshole-ish tendencies if it’s going to sound this good, the humming Maclean Music sparkle of “Diamond (From Your Mouth)” is dreamy and plangent and poignant all at once, Eric nailing that immortal pop timber, and speaking of timeless, on “Counting to Eleven” the Flywheels put a stamp across the decades, creating this subtly collaged mashup that had me first thinking that Carole King had formed a band to bridge the gap between the Beach Boys and the Raspberries and, second, that it was Rosanne Cash that Nick Lowe had once married instead of Carlene Carter. In short, it has that deceptively easy lush pop flow to it and I know you know what I mean and oh by the way, I’ve not even been hopscotching tracks here in standard quick review fashion. No, those merely form the initial trio of songs out of a solid dozen, a duodenary document amounting to a spectacle of rolling splendor that is highly recommended if the class of referents briefly presented here tweak your interest in the least. Believe us, they never let up until the luminous, power popsike fade-out of the aptly-named, spirit-elevating final track “Dream of Life.”
Hesitate not. Buy it here.[feature photo: Trish Tritz]