There’s a track on “Motorcade Amnesiacs”, the new album by Sweet Billy Pilgrim, called ‘We Just Did What Happened, And Nobody Came’ which although is it very nearly the same title as their debut album is perhaps a wry comment on the bands recent predicament. Despite massive critical acclaim for previous album ”Crown and Treaty” and a Mercury nomination for the one before ”Twice Born Men” the band nearly folded in the face of general indifference from the ever decreasing record buying public. In the end they realised they were always going to be musicians, come what may and so positivity won the day. The album title references the JFK assassinations and the amnesiac part suggests an attempt to find a place where modern cynicism can be forgotten.
Frontman Tim Elsenberg has described this as their Queens of The Sprout Age record, a musical meeting of minds between Josh Homme and Paddy McAloon, but there’s little motorik riffing here apart from on the intros to the first two songs and big grinding riff on ‘Longstreth’. There is though a lot of lush, literate pop (‘Just Above Midtown’ is their most Prefab Sprout like song to date) which often busts out from poised, progressive rock and metropolitan funk. To me this is less stoner meets swooner than it is their California album. There’s a glossy, Californian sheen to much of the music, especially referencing Steely Dan on’Burn Before Reading’ and ‘We Did What Just Happened…’ and there are surprising traces of early Warren Zevon in the vocals of Elsenberg. Now I know neither of those artists originated from California but it was that state that defined them and took them to their hearts and it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t be the same for Sweet Billy Pilgrim given the chance.
As befits an album made as an act of defiance lots of songs, such as ‘Make It So’ and ‘FFwd To The Freeze Frame’ are the band talking themselves out of a bad mood. ‘FFwd To The Freeze Frame’ is the best example of the albums style – a jerky guitar figure underpins a soulful vocal by Elsenberg (like a less dissolute Warren Zevon here), a squealing sax solo seems to confirm the agitated mood, but then a disco beat picks up and the song hand claps towards a joyous end.
‘Make It So’ is a mix of Everything Everything‘s white boy r’n’b and Elbow‘s string drenched terrace anthems. I don’t think there’s a song here which doesn’t employ more than one mood or musical style, and more often than not however it begins it ends up in a happy place via some very interesting byways.
The incredible ‘Slingshot Grin’ mixes old world Americana of a chain gang chant with booming gospel style backing vocals and the cool poise of Jada Carpenter’s folky interjections. The song then comes together in a moment of pure alchemy as once again the melodies meld into something warmer, mellow brass blooms in the background and the song ends in a mood of lovely whimsical celebration. As the strings play us out you’re not quite sure how you got there. but it’s a delightful surprise.
The American born guitarist and vocalist Carpenter only joined the band on their last album, but her influence on the band grows stronger and some of the songs she fronts are the best things here. The lovely ‘Tyrekickers on which she takes lead vocals calls to mind the raptures of Judee Sill (a native Californian) and the smart songwriting of Aimee Mann.
The Californian theme is made explicit on ‘Coloma Blues’, the closing song again featuring Carpenter on lead vocals. It begins with a perky vibe not unlike Piney Gir‘s country records, but as Carpenter‘s ‘I’ll stake my claim here in the California dust‘ refrain is repeated the tune builds with martial drums into a dazzling prog pop workout with a gorgeous guitar line playing us out to a rather sudden stop. So much good stuff has happened in its brief lifetime that you can’t believe Sweet Billy Pilgrim don’t have another couple of intriguing stylistic U turns up their sleeves, but no, it really is over and leaves you wanting more. Clever, clever, clever.
I have woken up for the past three days singing these songs in my head, and they’ve stayed with me all day, That’s something that no other album has achieved so markedly this year.
This album is one giant middle finger to cynicism. It’s marvellous!