Here’s my story: I love “The O.C.” I don’t get cable, so it’s not like I have a lot of programming options, but it’s the first TV show I’ve arranged my schedule around since MTV cancelled “The State” back in 1995. As a primetime soap opera, it’s not exactly groundbreaking material, and it has its fair share of painfully bad dialogue (“This is how we do it in the O.C., bitch!”), but it’s got some genuine heart, it’s entertaining, and I’ll be damned if Adam Brody isn’t a young Ben Stiller. Recipe for Sunblock’s self-released debut EP follows an eerily similar pattern. It’s an endearing rock/pop album with relatively ordinary sonics, and it’s got a few awkward lyrics. But it delivers complex human emotions with sincerity, it’s a pleasure to listen to, and frontman John Mills sounds like a young Ben Folds without all the snarkiness.
Plenty of bands layer electric guitars over acoustics, but Mills and company (three of whom are members of NYC’s Noba) manage to separate themselves from the pack by tossing in a few elements to keep you on your toes. The opener, “Plans and Strategies,” adds a bit of slide guitar to the mix, with keys providing a rolling backdrop to the entire production. The result is a lazy, almost alt-country backdrop for a refrain that’s pleasingly off-key. The piano/acoustic guitar of “At the Same Speed” is a perfect match for Mills’ vocals, bouncing along on its bittersweet story of redemption. The reverb-heavy “Put You Down” charts a watery territory for a rising chord progression that leads a march towards a cathartic finale with horns and jazzy guitars working in tandem.
The best moments of the band are captured in the manic-depressive rollercoaster “The Classifieds.” The technically proficient acoustic plucking backs the rational contemplation of a failed relationship, but reason is soon brutally betrayed by an angry wall of sound as Mills laments his “lazy human genes” in the greater scheme of things. His voice filled with resignation, he tiredly sings “We should get along famously” with the perplexed tone of a newly rejected lover before the finish hints at a hesitant recovery. It’s honest and perfect, and I’ve rarely heard such a skilled depiction of the spectrum of human emotion.
Where Mills occasionally falters is the specificity of his lyrics. His descriptive references are sometimes restrictively precise, and tend to work against him as the universal applicability of the song vanishes. Abstraction is a powerful tool; sometimes you need not say more than “You are constantly disappointing.” Once you fill in the whos and wheres, it becomes the property of the author and solely the author, and that can create a disconnect with the audience.
I’m well aware that comparing an album to “The O.C.” virtually guarantees dismissal within stuffier indie circles, but those willing to dispense with pretense will discover a hidden gem of an album with Songs Through Screen Doors. Playing with the conventions of rock and pop just enough to avoid drawing attention to itself, its catchy harmonies beg to be replayed. This is radio-friendly rock ‘n’ roll with the rare combination of a heart and a brain, and it remains a mystery to me why they haven’t been signed. With any luck, there’s justice in this world, and we’ll hear more from Recipe for Sunblock in the future.