Take a look at the cover of Baby Comes Home, the debut from twenty-two-year-old Lawrence, Kansas native Patrick Cleandenim. There he sits like some Brat Pack acolyte, decked out in a vintage, pin-striped vest and slacks with two alligator-skin suitcases behind him. In his left hand, a cigarette burns down to his fingers, while his right hand cocks the hammer of a pistol. It’s a pose that communicates equal parts suave collectedness and seductive danger. But all the staged lighting reminds that this is a pose, a game of dress-up. For the most part, the music on this debut functions in the same way: Cleandenim slips into the guise of debonair crooner, supported by full band, including brass, strings and backing singers.
Not only does he assume a familiar role, but his songwriting is so steeped in classic craft of the ’50s and early ’60s — from Bobby Darin to Scott Walker — that many of his compositions are laced with deja vu. On the one hand, it’s a testament to the strength of the writing. These songs are all so tightly constructed and lavishly produced that they unfold with an effortless inevitability. Then again, the way they play like half-remembered songs makes them all too easily digested. Moreover, he seems far more interested in immersing himself in genre study to replicate the sound of an era, rather than using — and subverting — its conventions to create something new. Even lyrically, Cleandenim never strays from material that would be at home in a bygone, big-band tune. When he sings rhymes like “I’ve got feet so I can dance to/ songs that we’ll romance to” in “Birds of Fashion,” you begin to wonder if he’s merely cobbling together lines from the Bacharach-David songbook.
Like label-mate Zach Condon, Cleandenim is writing songs that are completely out of step with contemporary music. And like Condon’s Baltic folk, Cleandenim’s brand of throwback pop is nothing new. If he failed to mold his source material into a more singular vision, there are several undeniably great songs on Baby Comes Home. “Days Without Rain” sways with a swooning string section before launching into its infectious chorus. The jaunty “So You Think You’re Gonna Live Forever” rides along three minutes of irrepressible melody. And the sprawling title track is a playful romp full of werewolves and vampires. Without a doubt, Cleandenim is a talented and precocious young songwriter; hopefully, his next record will let us hear his own voice more clearly.