The Brunettes: Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks
Nov 23, 2002
HOLDING HANDS, FEEDING DUCKS, The Brunettes (Capitol)
In an age of CD reissues and MP3s, when pop’s past and present seem to be occupying the same space at the same time, the Brunettes shouldn’t come as any surprise. The image this Auckland band presents is pure 60s: three guys and a girl goofing around on a skateboard and roller skates. The guys have sneakers and Beatle haircuts; she wears knee-hi’s, white blouse and matching headband. It’s so absurdly wholesome you have to ask, what’s wrong with this picture?
Their first album takes its primary inspiration from the teenage symphonies of the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes and the Beach Boys, into which they sneak sly dashes of garage rock, Jonathan Richman, and the Velvet Underground like a chef sloshing alcohol on the dessert.
The Phil Spector-style autocrat behind the quartet is Jonathan Bree – songwriter, guitarist, singer and orchestrator. His Ronette is lead singer Heather Mansfield, though you suspect from her multi-layered keyboard contributions and string arrangements that she’s vastly more integral to this group than any of Spector’s interchangeable female vocalists were to his record-making.
Like those of George ‘Shadow’ Morton (auteur of such pop operettas as the Shangri Las’ “Leader of the Pack”) Bree’s songs are teen dramas, played out in verses and choruses full of shoo-be-doo-bee-doos, punctuated with violins and decorated with sleigh-bells. The subject is invariably boy-meets-girl. But unlike Morton’s records, in which the girls were the narrators while their objects of affection were distant, perhaps imaginary, Bree’s songs are frequently duets. The effect can be shocking and funny. In “Talk To Jesus”, Mansfield – in wide-eyed, bobby-soxer role – confesses: “Oh how I could kiss those lips/but it may never, never seem right”. “You could be my kind of destiny”, Bree deadpans back, in dark monotone as lecherous as Mansfield’s voice is innocent. It’s like Lou Reed or Julian Casablancas just walked into the candy store, shades in place and dope in pocket, to try a pick-up line on the singer.
Alternatively, you could hear the Brunettes’ music as a dialogue between pop’s present and past; Bree all worldly, cynical and post-modern talking to Mansfield, the guileless beat-girl of a bygone age.
It could all sound terribly arch, but Bree and company have a couple of aces. For one, they are seriously funny. “When I sing I like to sound American”, Bree croons in the opening tune (the emblematically titled “Moon In June Stuff”), winning you over with wit while issuing the disclaimer for every faux-Americanism that follows.
And for all their mocking of the medium, their bubblegum symphonies are honestly beautiful. Bree’s melodies are irresistible, his arrangements lovingly constructed, from the xylophone and bass arpeggios through to the party claps.
Throughout its thirty-seven minutes Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks maintains its balance between parody and homage, pastiche and purity, without ever falling off its skates and grazing its knees.