Long-distance, collaborative music may be a romantic idea, but there are some serious limitations that come with the territory. Secret Cities is a band that started out as a project between M.J. Parker and Charlie Gokay, who exchanged ideas and cassette tapes while on opposite sides of North Dakota. While certainly the archaic-ness of the snail-mail effort got some creativity flowing, no clear songwriter developed, and it shows on the band’s sophomore effort, Pink Graffiti.
For such a young band, the poor sound quality could be forgivable (certainly given the current lo-fi craze), but the album ostensibly sounds like a demo. Secret Cities shoots for an orchestral, Brian Wilson-inspired aesthetic, but instead of sounding big and important, the songs end up muddled and flat, with the kitchen-sink approach. Strings, horns, pianos, drums, handclaps, banjos, synths, an army of guitars, and a wide array of effects are rendered completely one-dimensional by the recording. It’s obvious the band members want the vocals and harmonies front-and-center, but they are mixed so low that the listener has to strain to hear them above the busy clatter. When the vocals do peek through, as on album opener “Pink City” or “Slacker,” they’re almost expressionless. Gokay and Parker sound tentative as singers, and this timid nature does no service to the music, which is aching to jump out and explode but usually fizzles without the necessary support.
It doesn’t help matters that the music itself is fairly derivative. “Boyfriends” might be catchy enough to be a single, but its sunny shuffle and harmonized whistling are too ineffectual in this day and age, when those attributes would more likely soundtrack a laundry-detergent commercial than a mixtape. The mid-tempo numbers start to pile up, all hovering around the four-minute mark without variety. Weird textures abound but they’re used for garnish rather than in the service of an effect-laden song like “Aw Rats,” which sounds like a limp Grizzly Bear rip-off. Occasionally the band will freshen things up a bit with a song like “Pink Graffiti Part 1,” a dark disco stomp that should be more of a blueprint than the haziness that the rest of the record lives in.
Ultimately, Secret Cities makes pop music that doesn’t pop. The members are obsessed with mood and texture, and that’s perfectly acceptable. But with such middle-of-the-road music, any interesting features suffer from slack songwriting and oversized instrumental aspirations. The result is an album that’s heavy on ideas instead of execution. It’s pleasant but forgettable.