It’s not often that you can find fault with a band’s pitch-perfect release; after all, the highest compliment you can offer a band on their new recording is, “Christ, this is so effing good.” What happens though when a good thing is too much? In the case of Winterpills stunning new release, All My Lovely Goners, here’s what . . . .
First, to bring you up to speed: Winterpills are a self-described "chamber pop" band formed in 2005 and based in Northampton, Massachusetts. They’ve been a staple (and de facto house band) of Whately, Massachusetts “Americana” music label, Signature Sounds. Band principals, Philip Price (vocal, guitar and keyboard) and Flora Reed (vocal and keyboard) are both married and vocally wedded to their tight, but delicate harmonies that are the band’s signature sound. Guitarist Dennis Crommett, along with bassist Brian Akey, and drummer Dave Hower have been the spine and co-architects of Winterpills, providing the structure and intricate guitar and rhythm section that is so central to the band’s identifiable sound.
The band’s full-length follow up to 2008’s Central Chambers is the melancholic All My Lovely Goners, released this past Valentine’s Day. Part impressionistic painting and elliptical song-writing reminiscent of Elliot Smith and post-Big Star, Chris Bell, their songs are rendered in hush tones that are alternately self-contained and bursting forth with sonic possibilities.
Picking up where they left off in 2008’s Central Chambers, and the 2010 EP, Tuxedo of Ashes, the band replicates their high and tight vocal harmonies courtesy of Price and Reed, matched by gorgeous string arrangements and flourishes of glockenspiel, treated viola and flute, sax, and some acoustic, electric, and lap steel drenched in tremolo and reverb effects, with skittering drum beats that push the envelope of conventional time signatures.
The moody and atmospheric opening track, “We Turned Away,” stakes out the band’s territory with close harmonies in keeping with their tight chamber pop leanings. Price and Reed’s intonations, “We awoke to find the world/and our mouths all full of pearls/and our hands unbound/and our words unfound,” are heavy as stone in the light pop confection which swirls around it.
While “Amazing Sky” adequately illustrates their penchant for chiming, power-pop, “Small Bright Doses” is the antithesis of that sunny disposition with Price and Reed promising the other possibilities that might not exist, “One day we will go/out to dinner/drink booze and laugh like we’re common sinners/tell boring stories/as if they mattered.”
The sunny pop hit, “Rogue Highway” is a conflagration of handclaps and jangly Byrds guitar chords with the shimmering refrain of “April flowers in the cold hand/in the words of the old man/you can’t pass up every penny in the snow/I let them go/on the rogue’s highway.” This is the gold standard of Winterpills song and has plenty of marketing and commercial possibilities (I hear BMW car ad).
All My Lovely Goners, despite being a collection of wonderfully inventive arrangements of pure pop songs (which can only add to the band’s critical acclaim), is marred by the band’s insistence on filling up the quiet moments of a song with too much vocal harmony. On one of the rare tracks where Reed takes lead vocals (and has a commanding presence), “The Sun Is Alone,” there’s relief from the sometimes cloying dual harmonizing (this, despite the understated backing vocals of Price) that has become the band’s stock in trade. There’s an emphasis on rendering each song a pop masterpiece. What’s been most refreshing about Winterpills recordings are the dichotomy between their dual quests for utter refinement and jagged song-crafting. This time around, the songs are devoid of the edges that have been so pleasing.