The Internet has redefined the artist-audience dynamic in many ways, and while most of the attention falls on matters economic (e.g., illegal filesharing) and personal (e.g., social networking), a whole spectrum of relationships has largely escaped discussion. One that has always interested me will likely be familiar to any new-music junkie. Indulging the temptation to have as much music as soon as possible, we snatch up demos and leaked early mixes only to become disappointed or underwhelmed when the “polished,” final release fails to surpass the “rough” versions we’ve become accustomed to. Is there anything to this but the subtle prejudice of familiarity? Does this rob us of the proper perspective for assessing a record, or does it enhance it? Is it fair to judge an artist by the work they didn’t necessarily intend to release, even comparatively?
I’ve been left grappling with these questions while trying to get a handle of Angelic Swells, Neverever’s debut full-length on storied indie-pop stalwart Slumberland Records, though in a pleasantly anachronistic variation of the dilemma. In 2009, the same label released “Blue Genes,” the debut 7-inch from the Champagne Socialists. The effervescent slice of throwback pop managed to satisfy both my affection for 1950s melody and my penchant for cantankerous scruffiness, and it easily became one of my favorite 7-inches of the year.
Not even one year later, the Champagne Socialists have become Neverever, and many of the things that made me fall for the single have changed. In many ways, the release of the “Blue Genes” 7-inch mirrors the burned-by-demos experience; the songs were recorded on the fly, and when Slumberland offered to press them to wax the band was yet unnamed, essentially picking one from a hat to throw on the record. With the benefit of time, the band members rechristened themselves with a name more to their liking and approached recording their full-length with more consideration. All of which undermines what made the band successful in the first place.
While the pun-averse may find it cringe-worthy, the Champagne Socialists was at the very least distinctive. Neverever is just plain unremarkable, and this quality becomes a trend. The about-face comes directly into focus from the first track. Where the Champagne Socialists played it fast and loose, Neverever is stiflingly mannered, opening the record with an eye-roll-worthy thunderstorm recording. Gone is shambolic charm, replaced with a deliberately compartmented mix that doesn’t do favors to any of the band members. The fuzzy, hook-heavy guitar parts are relegated to the background, while Jihae Simmons’s vocals are squarely front and center. Simmons is a capable singer but not a particularly emotive one. Her vocals often come across as overly rehearsed and staid, as though every elided note were planned far in advance. Even worse, Simmons sounds disengaged from the band, her vocals failing to match the considerable energy the band delivers. The sum of these changes buries the band’s strengths and magnifies the weaknesses.
If I weren’t so smitten with the roughhewn sound of the Champagne Socialists, would I be so hard on Neverever? For all my faults with the record, the band assuredly has dignifying qualities, most prominently a knack for crafting tunes with a bouncing, ready-for-the-roller-rink vibe that is undeniable. “Blue Genes” and “Young Runaways,” while definitely superior in their 7-inch form, retain an undeniably toe-tapping appeal. While clearly indebted to the pop sound of the 1950s and ’60s, the band can quite cleverly subvert its source material with darker flourishes, like the eerily tremolo’d notes on “Here Is Always Somewhere Else” or the slightly incongruous melody that streaks across the backdrop of “Coconut Shampoo.”
But missteps continuously deflate the bubbles before they can provide a properly fizzle tickle. “16th Wonder” busts out the classic boner of an unnecessary violin-accompanied ballad; the fiddle adds nothing as the song plods along its way. “Underwater Ballet” tries to rev things up for the close, but the muffled guitars leave listeners idling. And while the lyrics were never exactly the point of ’50s/’60s pop, Neverever produce some real groaners even by those standards. “Bitch Boys” is thoroughly asinine, but the worst offender is “Cowboys And Indians,” which buries Native American genocide beneath pat binary constructs, platitudes like “Cowboy and Indian/ Put down the bow and gun,” and several hearty rounds of war whooping.
Jihae Simmons told Nu Rave Brain Wave that her band was dissatisfied with the Champagne Socialists moniker because it “seemed too stuffy in a boring way.” Unfortunately, the same thing can be said about Neverever’s debut long player. Even if the band members hadn’t set the bar high themselves, Angelic Swells would suffer from too much promise unrealized.