December 3, 2009
Sometime around 2004, cultural critics started typing up twee's obituary. The latest Wes Anderson film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, had flopped. Mild-mannered bands like the Boy Least Likely To and Belle and Sebastian were about to cross over to the Guster/Ben Folds set. And hey, you hear this guy Kanye West? Precious, indie-label pop has regained some critical currency over the past couple of years, but the most contentious stuff is different now. It has swagger.
At least, Vampire Weekend do. Sweden's the Tough Alliance and the acts on their Sincerely Yours label do, too, though they've obviously spent serious hours pining over old C86 and Sarah Records bands. L.A. baroque-pop quartet Princeton are similarly unapologetic about their self-presentation: boat shoes, a breakout 2008 EP inspired by London's Bloomsbury intellectual scene, and, on debut full-length Cocoon of Love, worldly references to everything from luxury cars and Kafka stories to hip-hop slang. But Princeton have been putting out records since before anyone heard "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", and the group's singers-- twins Jesse and Matt Kivel-- actually grew up on Princeton Street in Santa Monica.
A little too clever? You're starting to understand the problem with Cocoon of Love. Joined by longtime pal Ben Usen on keyboards and newer addition David Kitz on drums, the Kivels tend toward Jens Lekman's dashing orchestration, unexpected samples, doo-wop finger-snaps, and Eeyore vocals. When they toss in Afro-Caribbean flavors, the effect has more to do with the recent sounds of Gothenburg, Sweden, than with certain young Columbia grads. Nevertheless, for all the names ("Sadie and Andy", Saul and "Silvie") and far-flung locales (Germany, Wall Street, San Diego) in these melodic vignettes about dysfunctional couples, there's little of Lekman's unforced charm. It's as if the songs are still growing into an older relative's finest suit.
Princeton do better here when they outfit their jaunty tunes in more atmospheric styles: the frayed synth-pop of "Martina and Clive Krantz" and "Worried Head", the shoegaze whorls on "I Left My Love in Nagasaki", or the chiming tropical reverie of "Calypso Gold". Waltzing acoustic finale "The Wild", however, with its clumsy poetry, is an even bigger let down than Camera Obscura's own Leonard Cohen pastiche, "Your Picture", itself the worst song on the Glasgow band's still-great Underachievers Please Try Harder. Sure, Lekman remembers Warren G, Vampire Weekend appreciate Lil Jon's lack of modesty, and TTA have covered 50 Cent, but Princeton's "Stunner Shades in Heaven", featuring the kind of squeaks Serge Gainsbourg used to elicit from Brigitte Bardot (and an Arthur Russell quote you'll see coming a line away), is once again a bit too-- har har-- on the nose.
If Cocoon of Love wants to be something bigger than it is, well, there are worse sins. Like Vancouver's equally mannered No Kids, Princeton are stretching beyond the staid chamber-pop of former tourmates Ra Ra Riot-- let alone Noah and the Whale or the disappointing new Boy Least Likely To single-- and that's to be applauded. They've even performed with a dance troupe at Lincoln Center as part of a Virginia Woolf event. And Jesse Kivel has made fine, Air France-style beach fantasy-pop under the name Kisses. None of this makes it any easier to stomach when, on Cocoon of Love's "Korean War Memorial", you hear a weirdly accented voice crooning, like nothing so much as a karaoker's Lekman, "You said to me that you liked indie rock." Here's the thing about swagger: You gotta own it.