Based on the flamboyance and polished sounds of the Sharp Things’ debut, Here Comes the Sharp Things, this orchestral pop group has little chance of making this year’s Cool List. The album’s innocence and lavish production hardly gives it an edge, but then again, sitting at the cool table is no longer a priority for most of us over age seventeen. Similar to the way Rushmore‘s Max Fischer wins his respect, the Sharp Things’ unapologetic squareness has a way of suddenly turning hip.
The album (re-released by Dive Records; originally self-released in 2002) draws from a Bacharach-esque assortment of glockenspiel, flugelhorns, pennywhistles, and reed wind instruments. It all sounds as if someone scored the keys to the instrument room of a private-school orchestra. And with their professional, unassuming approach, the sixteen “players and lovers” (as they’re called in the liner notes) could very well be the pit band for one of Rushmore Academy’s hit plays, all humbling, serving as the accompaniment to frontman Perry Serpa.
Serpa, who also plays piano and acoustic guitar, has a voice nearly as exorbitant as David Bowie or Jarvis Cocker and just as tender as Art Garfunkel. Like Garfunkel, Serpa sounds as if he has licked quite a few silver spoons, and during his performance, deserves a bright blue stage light from which he can gaze dreamily.
This is to say that the vocals can be a bit much, particularly when they’re coupled with lyrics that grapple with pompous conceits or set up scenes that are a little too Broadway (“Looking out on Greenway Square, did you say you loved me here?” begins “A Million Things”). Getting hit with these staged scenes in the middle of a record is somehow disorienting, kind of like stumbling into the middle of a performance of Les Miserables for the first time and wondering what that Jean Valjean is all about.
Still, wherever the words fall short, the instruments ring true, all recorded in warm and pretty tones. And on the occasions when Serpa’s lyrics go the simple and sad route, notably on “I Will Always Be Swimming in This Sea” and “It Took Forever to Get Home Tonight,” the songs earn a place on that late-night jukebox for the lonely hearts.
Most albums have times when they should and shouldn’t be played. Anyone who thinks of blasting Here Comes the Sharp Things on a summer eve while cruising down Main Street risks severe ridicule. No doubt, this is a wintry record, and enjoying it is like taking that safe retreat into a thick wool scarf, and being oblivious to how corny it may look.