Little Green Cars have that intangible quality talent scouts will tell you can only be described as “IT.” When someone has “IT,” they are undoubtedly destined for stardom. Indeed, this Irish five-piece band of 20-year-olds have crafted a debut album Absolute Zero that feels big and expansive and full of everything that seems to be popular in rock music today. Look at bands like The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and Mumford & Sons – they’ve all got a very similar, folk-strewn sound to them, replete with male-female vocal interplay and gorgeous harmonies that can send chills up your spine if heard at just the right moment. They’ve also got big, memorable choruses that are often easy and fun to sing along with whether you’re driving around town or in the crowd at a show. Little Green Cars have all these qualities and deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those other, much more popular bands. Why they’ve yet to truly permeate the worlds of the masses perhaps best called neo-folk fanatics remains a mystery. As with most new artists, perhaps their time will be six months or a year from now, giving them a little bit of time to gather momentum before skyrocketing to the upper echelons. When the band embarked on their short U.S. headlining tour earlier this spring, they played small venues with low ticket prices. In Chicago they were going to play the 250 capacity Schubas, but thanks to some radio support and a $5 ticket price, demand was high enough that the show got moved to the 500 capacity Lincoln Hall. Strangely enough, the radio support for the band stopped immediately after they drove out of town. Apparently the station was only playing their song “The John Wayne” to sell tickets and nothing more, which also suggests they felt the song or the band weren’t good enough to leave in regular rotation. They’ll be returning to Chicago for Lollapalooza, where they’ve got a placement 2/3rds of the way down the lineup but are slated to play the same day as The Lumineers and Mumford like it’s kismet. Perhaps by the time August arrives, so will their moment to truly shine.
But let’s dive into the record itself and the strengths and weaknesses that can be found within. As with just about every band, you want to put your best foot forward and suck as many people into your record straight from the very first note. That probably explains why the single “Harper Lee” kicks off Absolute Zero. When the track begins, it’s just an acoustic guitar and Steve Appleby’s voice as he sings the line, “Like a crash I wait for the impact.” When the verse ends and the chorus enters, so does that impact. The full band comes in and charges ahead full speed with effortlessly harmonized “oohs” and a rather impressive lyrical hook. “There’s a gun in the attic, let me go grab it / I’d blow holes in my soul just so you could look past it,” Appleby effuses with the rest of the band in harmony backing him up. For those that don’t know, the song title is also the name of the famed author of To Kill A Mockingbird, and the while the lyrics have nothing to do with that on the surface, they do reflect a loss of innocence and the fight against becoming a responsible adult, which happen to parallel the themes found within the book. The ability to showcase such depth and creativity in a song that’s so anthemic and stadium-ready is a sign of Little Green Cars’ strength as a band and their desire to raise the discourse in mainstream folk today.
Those massive and memorable sing-along choruses mixed with strong lyrics are all over Absolute Zero, even taking a relatively mid-tempo track like “Angel Owl” and providing just the surge needed to keep it from falling into throwaway territory. Credit Markus Drav’s work as producer as key to this record’s success, because his previous jobs with Arcade Fire, Coldplay and Mumford & Sons have proven he knows how to make a big record that will inspire millions. If it weren’t for the intense harmonies, it’d be easy to suspect that the pounding piano and crashing cymbals of “Big Red Dragon” might have been pulled straight from a Keane or Coldplay record, which would be a strike against the band if it didn’t sound so good on them. In fact, the only real misstep on the entire album comes right at it’s center with the track “Red and Blue.” It sounds like it comes from a completely different band, straight down to the synths and AutoTune, both of which don’t appear anywhere else on the record. Arguably you could call it an attempt to pull off some sort of Bon Iver-esque ballad circa the Blood Bank EP era (see “Woods”), but that was 2009 and what worked then doesn’t always work today. A lot has changed in music over the last four years, believe it or not. Then throw in the fact that every single member of Little Green Cars has the voice of an angel, and it seems downright idiotic to let a machine process those vocals into something more inhuman and robotic. Why the band wanted to try such an odd approach and why they felt it fit in with the rest of the album remains a bit of a mystery.
It’s worth mentioning that Faye O’Rourke is the co-lead singer of Little Green Cars, and the three tracks on Absolute Zero where she takes over are some of the album’s strongest moments. She gives off a very Florence + the Machine vibe on “My Love Took Me Down to the River to Silence Me,” a track that starts with some gospel choir-like chanting of the song’s title but then allows her to belt out the chorus to the rafters. “This love’s killing me, but I want it to,” she wails, drawing the delicate line between pain and passion. O’Rourke chooses to play the long game on “Please,” starting out in aching ballad formation before transitioning to a surging and confident rock song at the end. Her versatility as a vocalist and her whipsmart songwriting would be quite impressive in most bands, but not so much in this band because it’s so chock-full of talent. That said, it’s a shame Little Green Cars played it so safe on this debut record, because they have the potential to be so much more than an Irish folk band that sounds like a whole bunch of other, more popular folk bands. At the very least, they prove that the same genre that’s brought us Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers still has a little bit of room left in it for people who know what they’re doing and can elevate a sound that grows more stale by the minute.
Little Green Cars – Harper Lee