REVIEW: Lemon Twigs present sometimes glorious, often twisted distillation of ’70s style

The Lemon Twigs, Songs for the General Public

New York City brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, doing business as The Lemon Twigs, write good, sometimes great songs whose charms sometimes get buried in their own everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to arranging.

Songs for the General Public
The Lemon Twigs
4AD, Aug. 21

It’s what the D’Addario brothers do. Their third album, Songs for the General Public, offers more of what was laid out on their two previous releases:  dense, well-crafted pop songs that sometimes stand gloriously on their own, but at other times lurk beneath a busy, often curious instrumental mix.

At their best on Songs for the General Public (“Live in Favor of Tomorrow,” “Somebody Loving You,” “The One”) the brothers show a sparkling ’60s and ’70s pop sensibility, oozing with melody, harmonies and chiming guitars or keys. It’s easy to imagine “Live in Favor of Tomorrow,” in particular, with its harmonies, 12-string guitar riff and harpsichord on a Cryan’ Shames album or sitting alongside other tracks on a Turtles greatest hits package, even if the brothers’ vocals fall short of those by the immortal Howard Kaylan. It’s absolutely glorious.

Similarly, “The One” is a two-minute-and-26-second dose of pure pop—short and concise just like the best nuggets used to be, with a tasty hook and a great guitar solo.

Most of these songs, however, are more complicated, more dense with their themes, and their challenging lyrics and instrumentation (the brothers play almost all the instruments here) often seem to work at cross purposes. Whether that makes the songs more interesting, or more confusing, is a subjective call.

The leadoff track, “Hell on Wheels,” features a string arrangement, a backing “choir” and a female operatic soloist. Its grandiosity is reminiscent of another brother duo, Ron and Russell Mael of the inexplicably long-lived Sparks, at their most dramatic and theatrical. This, too, may well be an acquired taste.

The tenor of the lyrics on Songs for the General Public’s 12 songs varies widely, from the innocuous ’60s-radio-fare of “Live in Favor of Tomorrow” to the subtle desperation and general weirdness of “No One Holds You (Like the One You Haven’t Met).” The latter comes off as a cross between early 10cc and middle-period Queen, with obtuse lyrics favored by the former (“No one compares to the one that you invented in your head,” “I’ve heard the grass gets greener the further you go from the tomb you call your home”).

On its own lyrical plane here, though, is “Hog,” a song whose vindictive message (“You once were an angel full of glitter, now of shit/ My hate knows no bounds, and all I can think of are ways I would kill you if you were closer to me”) betray a radio-friendly veneer, until the music temporarily devolves to match the ugly, desperate lyrical content … and just as quickly resumes it Celine-Dion-esque pop journey.

Another song on which words and music seem to come from separate creative spaces is “Why Do Lovers Own Each Other?” which sounds as if Fred Rogers or one of his guests breaking out in song on that venerable show—had Mister Rogers ever chosen to address selfishness and lust.

The album’s closer, “Ashamed,” is a microcosm of The Lemon Twigs’ approach. It begins with strummed acoustic guitars and quiet singing, and by the end, electric feedback predominates—all in the service of lyrics about incest.

On the other hand, the mismatch of “Somebody Loving You” is its odd electronic instrumental flourishes and saccharine-in-the best-way sound with clever, morose lyrics, like, “Her heart remained with me while mine was in bed, with some other head, lying a pillow away.”

Sometimes, that sort of  juxtaposition, in which bitter words belie a sunny musical exterior, can give a song—“Why Do Lovers Own Each Other?” for instance—a certain power. “Somebody Loving You” also mines that source. But still, the armchair producer in me wonders whether different instrumentation would have elevated that latter song. I also can imagine someone like Ron Dante (“Tracy,” “Sugar Sugar”) singing “Somebody” (or “The One”) and turning it into a ’60s-style pop classic.

It isn’t hard to imagine about half of Songs for the General Public becoming true gems in the hands of the right pop producer. I think of what Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet conjured up for Sweet’s classic “Girlfriend” in 1991, and wonder what those two would do with a song like “Live in Favor of Tomorrow” or “The One.” That would be 100-percent fun.

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