I will be forever indebted to he who can get the chorus to Hello Stranger’s “Here We Go Again” out of my head. It’s a catchy li’l bastard; a clever modulation leads to a syncopated burst of sunshine guitars, bouncy bass, and a perfect melody sung by Juliette Commagere, double-tracked to thicken her voice’s natural caramel richness. And as great as that chorus is (really, I don’t mind having it stuck in my head it all), it’s just one of the dozens of standout moments on the L.A. quartet’s self-titled debut, one of the most assured pop-rock records of the year.
Legendary guitarist Ry Cooder (father of the band’s drummer, Joachim) produced the record, but other than a massive bagpipe hook on “Plain and Simple,” there’s nothing of his trademark world-fusion eclecticism on Hello Stranger. Unless you consider new wave a foreign music — the best tracks here swell with square wave synths and robotic keytar accents that bounce along stuttering ’80s rhythm tracks. But as soon as you’re ready to pass them off as just another high-hat and Blondie-obsessed dance-pop band, Hello Stranger pulls out some welcome surprises: ballads worthy of Berlin (“Kubrick Eyes”), strangely alien sounding robo-rock (“Everyone Comes Here”), even a funky number sung entirely in Spanish (“Es Tu Vida”).
Hello Stranger’s not-so-secret weapon is Commagere, a smooth-voiced, long-legged vixen who’s effortlessly sexy whether she’s playing vulnerable or sassy. That puts her in league with Emily Haines of Metric, but vocal style isn’t the only trait that the two bands share. Just like the sterile recording quality of Metric’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? there’s a dull brightness to the engineering on Hello Stranger that renders tracks such as “Robody” and “Which Side Is Mine” strangely toothless, despite their juicy hooks. Of course, the band’s riffs are so punchy, their harmonies so rich and melodies so sweet that teeth problems were bound to crop up anyway. An auspicious debut.