“Some people holding hands look like paper dolls, paper cuts of thoughts they must never show,” croons Jonathan Bree on the title track of the Brunettes’ fourth full-length. The image is fragile, fleeting, whimsical yet tinged with melancholy. A two-dimensional children’s art project stands in for all the unspoken subtleties of human connection, just as these simple-on-the-surface songs evoke love, longing and the power of imagination.
The Brunettes are a New Zealand based electro-pop outfit, centered around the male-female duo of Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield, but augmented by occasional contributions from other Auckland musicians. Their sound is weightless and fanciful, sweet right up to the boundary of cloying-ness but not quite past it. Mansfield, in particular, has the breathy soprano of a little girl, landing lightly on lyrics that might not bear much additional weight. Bree’s voice is reedier and freighted with overtones of irony—he sounds at times like James Elkington of the Zincs. The duo’s vocal interplay is the core of Brunettes’ sound, a fresh, unstudied dialogue that seems more like snippets of overheard conversation than verse and chorus. The singing, utterly natural, is surrounded by playfully electronic sounds: programmed drums, popcorn bursts of synthesizer, disco swells of strings.
There’s a tension, in these songs, between the ordinary and the imagined. Some of them—“Connection,” “Bedroom Disco” and “Thank You”—are lightly ornamented retellings of day-to-day life. Others, “The Crime Machine” in particular, are pure flights of fancy. In the middle, though, are the best songs, the ones that find surreal prettiness in the day to day, or as one song puts it, magic with no bunnies. It is hard not to love “Connection”’s coffeeshop crush reveries, where Mansfield imagines “We’ll be sitting side by side, I’ll circle you a job and you could read my stars,” or “Red Rollerskate”’s bubbly recounting of a boyfriend towing his asthmatic love around on a rope. There’s an exactness in the details that grounds these songs, and yet they are as brightly colored as daydreams, fairy tales for Starbucks princesses.
Paper Dolls is a really delightful piece of work, tender and whimsical and, despite a certain amount of artifice, touchingly sincere. To say that the music is lightweight is to miss the point. The songs are light as dandelion fluff, certainly, but this is what allows them to drift free of the mundane.