It’s usually good to be wary of people calling themselves an art band. A lot of the time it means they think music is something other than art. Granted, it sometimes yields the Flaming Lips or the Velvet Underground, but then again, it sometimes just leads to a very bad aftertaste.
Lucky for the listeners that Meow Meow wasn’t thinking nearly as much about the avant-garde as throwing down catchy riffs. Their debut album, Snow Gas Bones, leans heavily on the production side but doesn’t forget that melody does an album good.
In a lot of ways, Snow Gas Bones is the album that Fountains of Wayne’s Welcome Interstate Managers could have been if the latter hadn’t decided to rehash its previous albums. Christopher O’Brien’s hushed vocals bear a striking resemblance to Wayne frontman Chris Collingwood. A self-declared Beach Boys influence doesn’t hurt, and Brian Wilson would probably be proud of Meow Meow’s subtle audio experimentation.
Although its off-key harmonies don’t serve as an accurate sample of the album as a whole, “Cracked” kicks off Snow Gas Bones with a quick introduction to Kirk Hellie’s (guitar/bass/keyboards/electronics) love of electric tone-bending. O’Brien ends a verse with the words “that same deafening sound / it’s been ringing through my head,” and a chorus of squawking guitars, synths and straight noise explodes, cutting back out to the second verse.
More evidence of Hellie’s abilities to craft sounds in the studio comes to the forefront on “Amourosis.” The track’s bassline and airy acoustic guitar are at first reminiscent of Aimee Mann’s “Save Me,” but like “Cracked,” the fuzzy vocals and squawks underneath the track eventually blow up into a mess of siren-like synth noise.
On “Sick Fixation,” it’s tough not to point fingers toward any number of Fountains of Wayne, but Hellie’s guitar saves the band again by making characteristically un-guitar-like sounds. The combination of digital blips and noise is seamless.
“Finis” is a slow drone over an organ vamp, and Meow Meow proves it shines when treading darker tones. Theremins come in and out, whistling together to create a weird forest of sound. Then everything drops out but the echo and plaintive cooing.
“Finis” is also a lyrical highpoint for the album. Sparse impressions leave just enough up to interpretation and the moody tone, as O’Brien sings, “When the silent movie ends / all you’re left with are your hands / to speak the words you long to say.”
The only complaint is that despite its irresistible melodies, Meow Meow never seems to tackle any new concepts. On the first track, O’Brien makes a mistake by noting at the outset that he’s “got nothing to say anyways.” The track listing doesn’t seem to stray from the standard pop-girl motif. Girl in love, girl out of love, and girl who doesn’t return phone calls all make a couple of appearances.
The only time the album really strays is on the one-minute intro to “Amplified Breathing Apparatus.” Behind plaintive chimes, an unspecified voice can be heard saying, “I dunno man, I just think you need to go more Ween,” and “These guys are just too f-ckin’ poppy, and I don’t mean in a heroin way.” Then a Steve-Reich-inspired fadeout before it’s back to more straight pop.
In the end, pop is often best served like a plate of Pixie Stix. It’s a sugar rush that leaves behind an electric rush and a sweet, sweet taste. On that scale, Meow Meow succeeds with Snow Gas Bones, and it will be interesting to see what comes next.