Young and Sexy

Life Through One Speaker

(Mint; 2003)

By Scott Reid | 30 March 2004

A good friend of mine once argued that you can really identify a person’s preferred genre(s) by looking at how much of the mediocre shit they’re willing to buy into along the way. A passing interest usually requires that the album be excellent or at the very least one of the best of its kind at the time, but when a person really loves hip hop, per se, they’re more likely to get pulled into liking a lot of the forgettable “me, too!“s that gets thrown around along the way. Personally, I pride myself in loving a wide range of styles, but I’ve always had a special soft spot for sparse and lyrically rich singer/songwriters (Cohen, Young, Mitchell, etc) and complex, lush pop (Beach Boys). There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll start collecting albums that no one outside of the biggest fans of the genre would give two shits about, and apologizing for many of its issues of mediocrity or general flaws that keep it from being amongst the cream of the crop.

Young & Sexy, a five piece from Vancouver, BC, just happen to fall into one of these categories—chamber pop. Their sophomore full length, Life Through One Speaker, is centered around a Brian Wilson-esque aesthetic and though its influence is less severe than High Llamas or The Heavy Blinkers, the group nevertheless are insistent in their incorporation of familiar vocal arrangements and clever, quirky chord progressions that also, at times, bring to mind fellow Vancouverite Carl Newman (ex-Zumpano, currently fronting the New Pornographers). But where Newman channeled his love of irresistible pop hooks into a demiurgic career that has influenced as many artists as those that inspired it, Young & Sexy find themselves at home with the substantially familiar. The problem being, as with their many peers, that copping the style doesn’t necessarily mean producing the substance as well.

To their credit, however, they manage to pull off a handful of truly remarkable cuts and the record as a whole falls slightly above the kind of truly mediocre fare I was ranting about earlier. “Oh My Love” opens the record with Lucy Brain’s slightly awkward vocals over a simple guitar progression and bursts of organ, and though it’s one of the less ambitious arrangements on Speaker, the lovely harmonies and memorable chorus hook save it from being just more saccharine, indistinguishable chamber pop. Though “Love” is a somewhat promising start, it’s really “Weekend Warriors” that showcases the first signs of Y&Samp; being a potentially great group. In many ways an obvious homage to Wilson (check out the muted bass runs that are unmistakable trademarks for one example), Brain’s vocals now adding a perfect balance to songwriter and other vocalist Paul Pittman’s unpredictable and infectious melody. The euphoric distorted guitar that enters halfway through and the three-part harmonies that end the song really push it over the top.

“Herculean Bellboy” and “Lose Control,” the former of which should probably earn Carl Newman a co-writing credit, follow “Warriors” with fairly forgettable melodies, mostly due to slightly more awkward lead vocals from Brain. But then, with “In This Atmosphere,” Pittman once again takes over lead vocal duties and we’re given the album’s second absolutely stunning achievement. It offers one great melody after another, shifting from Dan Bejar-ish verses to a full harmony chorus, concluding with an all-out assault of an arrangement that absolutely obliterates the two tracks that had preceded it.

Unfortunately, the record moves back into Brain’s slightly off-putting lead vocals and, like “Oh My Love,” “One False Move” works well enough due to the strength of its hook, though there is little doubt that had Pittman taken the spotlight, it would have been significantly better—a feeling only reinforced by following track, “Ella.” Pittman’s voice soars over the bare-bones production, and the track is as close as he comes to sounding like a more accessible Destroyer, utilizing a similar treatment of production space (partially due to sharing Bejar’s choice of production team, JC/DC, no doubt). It’s a regrettably brief cut, but does lead into another of the record’s catchiest moments, another New Pornographers style pop number that effortlessly shifts through several memorable sections.

“More Than I Can Say” follows and though Brain’s vocals suddenly seem to fit perfectly, the lyrics, underwhelming melody and epic length (really, this could’ve wrapped up at about three minutes without much of a loss) act to only retard the momentum built by “Ella” and “Speaker.” But like the rest of the record’s lulls, they manage to bounce back one last time for the tongue-in-cheek (“We’re not going to grace the cover of Elle/ it’s the thoughts in our minds that make us sexy as hell”) sing-along “Young and Sexy,” which builds with more acoustic guitar and plaintive harmonies before ending the record with a triumphant chanting of the group’s name.

Life Through One Speaker as a whole probably isn’t going to hold the attention of those who aren’t instantly won over by intricately constructed chamber pop, and I suppose part of the blame is to be placed on Brain. Though credited as being the real inspiration to Paul’s music taking shape (before you roll your eyes or do the whole “awww” thing, the two dated briefly a decade ago and she’s credited to helping his music take form by basically devastating him in a breakup, only later becoming friends and starting the group; how’s that for a ‘how we started’ story?) and being an undeniably incredible harmonist, more often than not her role as lead vocalist puts a damper on Pittman’s consistently strong songwriting. Were they able to piece together a full record as remarkable as “Weekend Warriors,” “In This Atmosphere,” “Ella,” “Young & Sexy” and the title track, they’d certainly have a strong chance at transcending their crowded genre. Right now, though, they’re merely flirting with greatness while holding mediocrity’s hand.