Let’s keep this straight, because it’s somewhat easy to get the two confused: there are two great indie bands making music right now. The first is The 1990s, and they’re a three-piece from Scotland. They’ve put out two records, 2007’s “Cookies” and 2009’s “Kicks”. The other band is the 1900s, and they’re a Chicago-based six piece. Their first album also came out in 2007 and was titled “Cold and Kind”, and last year they released the follow-up EP “Medium High”. The EP was more of a transitional piece however, something to keep fans interested as the band prepped their sophmore album “Return of the Century”, which sees release this week. It comes after a very tumultuous period for the band, in which they dropped two founding members and took some time recruiting proper replacements. All the in-fighting of the past couple years has resulted in a much stronger band dynamic overall though, in accordance with the “what doesn’t kill you…” mentality. They’ve also refined their sound a little bit, pushing away from the looser, more psychedelic elements of their debut and attempting something much more delicate and pop-friendly.
True to that promise, “Return of the Century” plays like a lighthearted indie pop record. None of the songs ever reach the four minute mark, hooks and choruses are everywhere, and grand orchestral swells are kept at bay. On “Cold and Kind”, there were guitar solos and small jam sessions, in addition to string sections and other extraneous elements. What was really impressive about that sound was how all those elements came together and created a very vibrant and relatively exciting collection of songs. It helped to put The 1900s on a lot of radars despite being signed to the wonderful (but small) Parasol Records. By contrast, “Return of the Century” sounds sparse. Violinist Andra Kulans is about the only strings player on the album, and she’s used much more sparingly and gently than in the past. Everything else is straight guitar and keyboards. On the surface then, this record can come across as being overly simplistic or just plain cliched within the confines of what’s become a standardized indie pop sound. What separates and elevates The 1900s from their peers in this case are two main things. First and foremost, the album is nothing short of lean. Everything is packed so neatly into each song that you can’t imagine how adding to or stretching what’s already there would make them better. It’s about focus, and The 1900s have found theirs in the best sort of way. Secondly, the vocal performances are simply out of this world good. The band has three contributing vocalists in Edward Anderson, Caroline Donovan and Jeanine O’Toole, and though one of them takes the lead on each song, the other two are always right there playing backup with intense harmonies or call-and-response scenarios. In turn a number of the tracks come off with a distinct Belle and Sebastian-esque appeal, though you can certainly hear a bit of The New Pornographers in there as well.
Highlights on “Return of the Century” are notoriously hard to come by, but that’s largely because as delightful as it is in three minute chunks, it ultimately works best as a cohesive whole of a record. When hard-pressed to pick those stand-out moments, single and opening track “Amulet” strikes immediately with an intense combination of piano, acoustic guitar, hand claps, violin and vocal harmonies. It’s a fun little toe-tapper that certainly has the potential to be a breakout hit should the right people latch onto it. Personally I might place it among the best songs of 2010. Elsewhere the near-ballad “Tucson” hits the right emotional notes vocally and possesses some of the strongest lyrics on the album. “Bmore” is notable for its three-part vocal harmonies for much of the song, and the couple of interesting left turns it makes structurally before finishing on a gorgeous high note. The same could be said for “Babies”, though the final coda breakdown into this remarkable freight train of a melody shows hints that the band responsible for “Cold and Kind” is still in there somewhere, even if things stop just short of a full-on guitar solo freak out.
At this point in the year, new music releases are supposed to be all downhill, slowly petering out to make way for the December compilation records and year-end lists. Really releasing your album anytime after the end of October is potentially problematic because you want as many ears to hear it and develop a relationship with it before the holiday season goes into full effect. The 1900s now face a small uphill battle trying to attract the right sorts of attention that “Return of the Century” deserves. With so many upbeat indie pop songs on the album as well, it doesn’t quite gel with the slow death beauty that fall and winter tend to bring. No matter the month or season though, good music is good anytime, which is what this album is. Those that have grown fond of the band thanks to their 2007 album “Cold and Kind” are right to be a little wary of the changes that have occurred in the past 3 years because in many ways The 1900s now sound like a completely different band. Despite this, their new pop-intense edge does a fantastic job of broadening their sound without dumbing it down in the least. In other words, they’re just as good as ever, only in a new way. Such are the follies of being very talented. “Return of the Century” is one of the most enjoyable indie pop albums of the year, even if it doesn’t quite possess the jaw-droppingly great peak moments or intense experimentation that some other records have. Pick up a copy sooner rather than later, for this is one you might want to fall in love with before the end of 2010.