I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on and off for four years when I was in school. It’s a quaint, boring charmer of a small town, an anomalous fresh breath from the state’s overgrown strip-mall regurgitation. It’s also the town Fred Thomas, the venerable head of the cracked-indie-pop collective Saturday Looks Good to Me, calls HQ. I was a sophomore in ’04, when the band’s last proper full-length, Every Night, was released, and I was already itching to get out. I remember buying it at Wazoo Records on State Street, and I especially remember that album’s last song, “When You Got to New York.” An aching acoustic number, it came off as a shoulder-shrug indictment of big-town dreams: “When you got to New York, you were sleeping on floors/ but you were sure it was better.”
Three years later, Fill up the Room finds Saturday Looks Good to Me making the move to Portland’s K Records. Move, not leap or step up. Despite that label’s prominent indie pedigree; and the new album’s transition away from ’60s girl group and sunshine-pop sounds; and the liner notes, which point out the album was recorded in Portland and Stockholm; Thomas’s act feels now, as it did then, like it would thrive in a small-town comfort zone.
Which isn’t to say that the songs aren’t hooky or vibrant — just delightfully small scale. Take the slow climb “When I Lose My Eyes,” which grabs from the go: “Me and my best friend/ sleep without any clothes,” Thomas wistfully declares, as the percussion gives out for clean, hard guitar strums. First, when the garnishes come in — a few notes of horns, then low-key strings — and later, when Thomas’s nuanced,
delicate abstractions get more agitated — “fingertips floating on top of the ocean for you” — the track is flighty enough to flop over. Or the distorted la la la’s on “Apple,” or the back-up vocals on “(Even If
You Die On The) Ocean,” that never unify. The eccentricities are built
in to the earnest, swooning pop construct; things are never just right.
Thomas has expressed a desire to make perfect pop songs. But he’s not being honest; the comically tinny keyboard line on “Money in the Afterlife”; Betty Marie Barnes flat vocals on “Hands in the Snow”; handwritten cover art — they’re not exactly self-imposed roadblocks, but more like check-points, making sure things never get too sleek in these supremely crafted tunes. It’s that self-conscious small-town vibe.