With his band’s fifth release in four years (counting EPs), Michael Nau, frontman of Baltimore-based Page France, seems to have no shortage of ideas. He is young and ambitious enough to continue churning out material sturdily anchored in Sufjan Stevens’s meticulous arrangements and Neutral Milk Hotel’s quirky sensibilities. But influences are tough to escape. And Page France never really progresses past mimicry.
Most prevalent in the band’s sound are finger-picked acoustic guitars, sporadic bursts of distortion, jangling banjos, chiming glockenspiels, yelping vocals, and an ever-present background female vocal. These elements aren’t unique to Neutral Milk Hotel or Stevens, but Page France doesn’t maneuver them in any new way. At the end of “Wet Dog Afternoon,” Nau’s vocal is accompanied by a harmonious trumpet, but it feels anticlimactic because the horn’s emergence is neither surprising nor novel. “Mr. Violin and Dancing Bear” features a dynamic progression all too similar to Stevens’s “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.” Even lyrically, Nao mirrors the confusion that recalls Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel, with lines like: “Because I lie so well I even start to buy it too” and “When you wag your tail up at the blue-eyed sun/ I see angels quickly picking up their guns/ How could the sky be blue for everyone at once?”
One of the few times the instruments exist specifically to create a mood that matches the emotions is in “A Belly in the Fish.” The song is as tender as tender gets, with Nao’s expressive longing over a bare acoustic guitar and minimal and cleverly placed glockenspiel. “The Joker’s Joke” employs some unexpected light cacophony that crescendos into a muddy climax of instrumentation and male/female vocal interplay, and it breathes some fresh air into the band’s formula.
As it is, Page France seems destined to be an opening act for the bands that have influenced it. The musicians don’t take the artistic risks in order widening the gap between their band and those that have come before it. Their heroes know that there is no reward without risk.