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The Wave Pictures - Instant Coffee Baby / If You Leave It Alone

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Artist: The Wave Pictures

Album: Instant Coffee Baby / If You Leave It Alone

Label: Moshi Moshi

Review date: May. 20, 2010

The Wave Pictures make nervy, hyper-articulate pop, with long intricate lyrics that unspool in perfect sync with jangly, syncopated rhythms. The two albums combined in this set — Instant Coffee Baby from 2008 and If You Leave It Alone from 2010 — catch the band shifting from the jittery, punk-leaning angst of, say, the first Feelies album towards a calmer, folkier style. Yet even as singer/writer/guitarist David Tattersall yearns for songs that get “sweeter and simpler and softer and slower and younger” in the title track to If You Leave It Alone, he can’t resist complication. His lyrics turn litanies of photo-realist detail into surreal melodrama.

The Wave Pictures — Tattersall, bassist Franic Rozycki and drummer Jonny Helm — have been together for almost a decade, starting out as a Jonathan Richman cover band (Tattersall is, at times, a dead ringer for Richman), and working sporadically on music as all three attended different universities. Although 2005’s Sophie is sometimes billed as their debut, it followed a slew of CDRs and self-releases. One of these, Catching Light, was an entire disc of Herman Dune covers, released in response to Andre Herman Dune’s album of Wave Pictures covers.

Instant Coffee Baby/If You Leave It Alone — the first Wave Pictures recording to get wide, US release — seems to span a period of significant change from 2007 through the present. Instant Coffee Baby erupts out of a tangle of caffeinated college-rock guitars, spraying rapidfire imagery over strident, bass-and-drum driven arrangements. If You Leave It Alone slows the pace, softens the intensity, but never takes the stinger out. Early on, Tattersall’s best lines stab through thickets of post-punk aggression. Later, they slip slyly through shuffling all-hands choruses and prickle atop folky strum-and-pickery.

“Leave the Scene Behind,” the first track from Instant Coffee Baby is, arguably, the best example of the early style, Tattersalls urgent squawk of a voice turning romance with a hipster girl into extreme drama (and failing). “I Love You Like a Madman” is slacker, more relaxed, its rhythms a lilt rather than a drive, its lyrics seemingly free-associative rather than planned. A kitchen-sink realist, Tattersall never saw a detail he couldn’t use, tossing off lines like, “I ate peaches straight from the can, the juice ran down my tongue, over my lip slipped on my chin, dripped on your parents’ carpet.” Yet though the words seem stream-of-consciousness, they match up exactly to the rhythm of the line. The song is giddily confessional, madly romantic, yet carefully plotted right down to the Clarence Clemens saxophone solo.

Musically, Wave Pictures are all sweetness and jangle, sounding, by turns, like Orange Juice, the Smiths and the Feelies. There’s a bit more roughness in this first disc than you’ll hear later on, more explosive drums, the occasional raw guitar or bass solo, yet the main source of friction comes from Tattersall. Strident, urgent, consumed with the difficult of getting things across, he swoops and flutters and drags the vibrato out of his most dramatic lines. And he does get some show-stoppers off. My favorite, from the existentially-charged “Strange Fruit for David,” considers the limits of representational art (including writing) in four fanciful lines: “A sculpture is a sculpture/Marmalade is marmalade/and a sculpture of marmalade is a sculpture/but it isn’t marmalade.”

If You Leave It Alone, coming two years later, represents a noticeable shift for Wave Pictures, a change in direction which Tattersall announces in the title track (after also enumerating the contents of his refrigerator). “A new tune gets sweeter and simpler with age…if you leave it alone,” he sings, and indeed, his focus seems to be on sweeter, simpler songs. The arrangements pare back the guitar and drums, making use of blurrier, reedier textures of saxophone and clarinet. Even his voice is softer, more a caress than a claxon, though the lyrics are still sharp as barbed wire.

There’s also a hint of ennui and self-disgust in this later album, an intimation that the verbal and vocal tricks of past work don’t hold the same fascination. In “Canary Wharf,” Tattersall sounds truly sick of himself, when he admits, “I made myself a drama/out of absolutely nothing/took the time to admire/the speed with which we grew boring.”

And yet, with a few exceptions — “Come On Daniel” is a blues-y, folky blessing, while “Bye Bye Bubble Belly” combines the surface lightheartedness with an undercurrent of melancholy — this new simpler direction lacks the appeal of earlier, more urgent material. If You Leave It Alone is fine, but not as compelling as Instant Coffee Baby. Tattersall’s dramas were too baroque and complicated to ever become boring, but his newfound tranquility drags a bit.

By Jennifer Kelly

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