Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Two Receivers: Dean & Britta's Back Numbers

This review appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger.

Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham have been making dreamy music for a decade, and they sound like veterans on Back Numbers. Drawing upon their experiences in Galaxie 500 (Wareham), Belltower (Phillips) and Luna (both), as well as their first outing as a duo in L'Avventura, the duo offers polished pop at a comfortably unhurried pace. The album is predominately built around digital percussion and guitar washes, with Phillips and Wareham’s restrained, somewhat world-weary voices leading to a consistently mellow sound. That isn’t to say that the album is a snoozer, more that it creates a mood and rarely breaks it.

This formula isn’t going to appeal to everyone. During the band’s performance at the Bowery Ballroom during the CMJ Music Marathon, portions of the crowd were noticeably restless but there were just as many enthusiastic fans. Of course, the term enthusiastic is relative – in this case it was just a matter of clapping a little harder during breaks – and Dean & Britta aren’t likely to attract excessive displays of adoration in the Morrissey vein. Rather, a feeling of strong-but-subtle affection is probably the best they can hope for.

It’s not just that the music is introspective rather than anthemic, or simply soft instead of loud, although that does have an effect in a live setting. Rather, the group seeks to portray themselves in a detached manner, evident from the precise photographs in the packaging to the somewhat impersonal songwriting. Although the tracks that make up Back Numbers are clearly love songs, they’re washed out, favouring mood over direct meaning. It’s an approach that will have its detractors crying aloof, while supporters might hail them as dream pop’s answer to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, with a pedigree to match. Fittingly, Back Numbers features a number of covers, and perhaps it’s because they’re singing other people’s words that some of the intensity is lost and the detachment amplified.

This isn’t to say they aren’t good, as Phillips provides some of the album’s more sublime moments. Lee Hazelwood’s "You Turned My Head Around" is one of these, containing the loudest dynamic on the album as Phillips breaks out of her well practiced purr in the rousing refrain, “And baaaaaby!” accompanied by a synth squelch. Unfortunately, this energy is quickly reeled in by overdubbing and more composed standard verses, but it’s gratifying because of its volume and the hope that around the corner there lies more dynamic shifts like it. Wareham’s nasal delivery is more of an acquired taste as it tilts between spoken lines and more melodic turns. Often, it’s most effective when it provides a backdrop, chipping in the backup vocal or playing off of Phillips’, as in the duet "Say Goodnight."

But Wareham gets in the last word on closer "Our Love Will Still Be There," which provides a glimpse into the timelessness that the duo seeks to create. “I’ll even love you if the world stops spinning ‘round,” he croons, and you’re inclined to believe him.

Phillips and Wareham epitomize longevity, and it’s admirable that they continue to make music after all these years. But their career has been based on a niche, as they seek to perfect an elusive brand of pop. Back Numbers isn’t a bad effort in the ongoing experiment, and it won’t disappoint the longtime fan, but it is unlikely to win over those that were previously uninterested.


MP3: Dean & Britta - Singer Sing
MySpace: Dean & Britta
Official Site: Dean & Britta


Anonymous said...

Holy shit! rbally is back!

jennings said...

Yes, rbally is back . . . .

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