Pity those who write pop songs. Few artists leave themselves quite as vulnerable to the shifting whims of their audience as hook-reliant musicians. People can argue the merits of one catchy chorus versus another for hours and never approach anything resembling agreement. Though some are better than others, there’s little inherently new about pop tunes, so the line between good and bad can seem about as nebulous as it gets. But there’s a sense of freshness and excitement in the best of pop that pulls the cream to the top. Although Irving’s sophomore LP, Death in the Garden, Blood on the Flowers, has plenty of hummable tunes, only a handful of them emit the vitality that is so integral to pop success.
Much is made of the superstar producers — by indie standards, anyway — that Irving lined up for this record: Phil Ek (Modest Mouse, the Shins), Jim Fairchild of Grandaddy, and Aaron Espinoza of Earlimart, to name a handful. It’s true that a great producer can make a good song a flat-out hit, but it all starts with the songwriting. This Southern California five-piece is capable of writing infectious tunes, but as it moves away from the Beatles and the Beach Boys toward more new-wavy influences, those memorable bits just aren’t present on this record. The fuzzy production the members of Irving favor has created fantastic results in the past (see “Did I Ever Tell You I’m In Love With Your Girlfriend” from 2002’s Good Morning Beautiful), but it congeals their album into a indistinguishable brick this time around.
Only “She’s Not Shy” is able to truly separate itself from the pack as a highlight. The rest of Death in the Garden may get stuck in your head from time to time, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to pinpoint what song it is you’re humming, and you probably won’t be particularly thrilled when you figure it out. Irving’s penned a batch of songs that can hold your interest in short bursts but will never inspire arguments. And that’s damnation for pop music.