With Psapp’s last album The Only Thing I Ever Wanted came a horde of expectant ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ fans (lured in by their theme tune ‘Cosy In The Rocket’) and the sudden responsibility to tour the US to cater to fans’ demand for wacky feline fun and their trademark toytronica, a genre practically invented for Psapp’s experimental electronica made with the help of various childhood trappings (something that still is fairly unconventional despite bands like CocoRosie helping to popularise it). Unfortunately, that also brought confusion, exhaustion and, it seems, heartbreak, all of which infuses their third album The Camel’s Back for better or worse. A wide variety of unusual sounds is still successfully employed – a great example being water used as a “rhythm machine” – yet a distinction to their former sound can be clearly heard. There’s less weirdness, less noise, and although considerable electronica elements pervade, it feels more like cutesy indie pop than ever.
In contrast with their previous work, The Camel’s Back is short on innovation. You’ll have a hard time hearing anything you haven’t heard before melody- and song structure-wise, and while this may increase the album’s accessibility it’s hard not to feel a pang of disappointment. That said, the danceable half of the album is very easy to get into – every song is likable after the first listen – but not to the extent that Psapp could be accused of ‘selling out’: there’s nothing on this self-produced album that sounds anywhere near another commercial success. It’s a shame, then, that repeated listens reveal its shortcomings. First single ‘The Monster Song’ may be the only song that’s designed to stick in your head instantly, but it quickly becomes rather annoying. Just like the boring ‘Somewhere There Is A Record Of Our Actions’, its über-sweetness tries too hard to sound carefree. Both songs are ultimately neglectable.
Surprisingly, The Camel’s Back is at its best when it loses the band’s trademark silliness. The beautifully mellow ‘Screws’, with its spare instrumentation focusing mainly on a simple repetitive piano motif, works very well and Galia Durant’s voice sounds unusually soft. Elsewhere, while ‘Part Like Waves’ and the title track a resemblance to modern French twee-pop, twirling around cushioned strings, ‘Fix It’ makes you think of Stereolab minus the post-rock stylings and shoegaze elements. While there’s not exactly a ‘bad song’ on the album, there’s little to get excited about. The seriousness of cute songs like ‘Fickle Ghosts’ do the album good but also make Psapp sound more generic. The possible exception is ‘Marshrat’, which stands out as the only instrumental track. Toy flutes and piano create an almost eerie atmosphere and thus an interesting reprieve from the faux-carefree indie pop.
The Camel’s Back is a solid record at heart, but at the risk of alienating some fans a fuller immersion into the new direction it occasionally hints at might have helped create something more substantial, something that can hold your attention for longer than three songs.
[Domino; October 27, 2008]