The cover of Animalore, the second album from Brooklyn’s Via Audio, features a painting of a ram staring out. It’s a textured portrait with whorls and brushstrokes visible, and it isn’t at all indicative of the music you’re about to hear. Via Audio are, first and foremost, a pop band, and Animalore is a subdued album, easy on the ears and not possessing the sort of danger that, well, a glowering animal with horns might imply. Then again, rams do seem to be a recurring motif in acclaimed pop albums; perhaps Via Audio had an eye on the canon.
While it’s not a hard-and-fast distinction, Animalore’s first half puts an emphasis on the low end, while its second half places guitar and piano in the forefront. When it works, it makes for fine pop songs. The programmed beats on “Goldrush” anchor a breathy chorus, one of several places on the album where the vocal harmonies of Jessica Martins and Tom Deis linger. And “Summer Stars” boasts a stylistic debt to Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac; if you’re making harmony-intensive pop songs that don’t fit one precise mode, you could do far worse for inspiration.
Alternately, while the band and producer Jim Eno (of Spoon) seem to have savored the opportunity to use the studio, the most straightforwardly played songs on Animalore — the ballad “Wanted” and the breathy folk-pop of “Oh Blah Wee” — are among its best. And the stylistic variation doesn’t always work — consider “Babies,” which at times recalls the subdued funk of Belle & Sebastian’s “Your Cover’s Blown.” That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but the chorus’s refrain of “I want to make babies with you” leaves it unclear whether this is a sincere statement, or a tongue-in-cheek parody of slow-jam excess. And the anti-Auto-Tune lament “Digital” boasts a memorable hook but an unfortunately literal set of lyrics; it has the feel of an irreverent b-side more than a part of a whole.
Via Audio have many of the components of a fine pop band: memorable vocals, a sense of humor, and a willingness to experiment. Where Animalore falls short tends to be in the small details: a lyric that doesn’t feel clever enough (or too clever), a riff that feels secondhand rather than classic. When Animalore clicks, it does it well, but there are too many stretches on here where the band’s restraint feels like they’re playing it safe. There’s nothing wrong with wanting pop music to be easy on the ears. But when considering that, there there’s something that comes to mind when listening to Eno’s primary gig, or when listening to Via Audio’s compatriots in alpine-animal cover-art, the New Pornographers: if you want your pop songs to stick with a listener, there needs to be a bit of a sting. Alternately: if you’ve got the horns, you might as well use them.