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Posted on December 13th, 2012 (11:19 pm) by Bradley Hartsell

North Dakota's Secret Cities' 2010 gem Pink Graffiti has a place on my all-time favorite records (about a hundred records ranked inside an Excel document), and I've spent the better part of two years trying to figure out why they haven't really taken off. Their brand of washed-out psych-rock played well both aesthetically and melodically, delivering ten great pop songs shrouded in an overcast of reverb and clangy production. Pink Graffiti may not have caught on outside of these digital walls, and Strange Hearts may not either, but Secret Cities is making some of the most exciting music out there today and their second LP only reaffirms their greatness.

Pink Graffiti, outside of a brooding, brilliant instrumental ("Wander"), consisted of free-flowing lo-fi pop, moving from one great melody to another. It was a loose concept album about Brian Wilson, and the Beach Boys influence definitely shows up in their work. Secret Cities takes the touchstones of baroque pop--the musical sophistication, the purposefulness in each instrument--but devoid of the bluster or clutter that can sometimes bog down similar albums. Charlie Gokey, MJ Parker, and Alex Abnos understand '60s melodic prowess scarily well, and their willingness to drive structures forward is impressive, rather than patting themselves on the back with a catchy chorus and driving it into the ground. On Strange Hearts, the band largely goes back to the well to recreate much of the magic found on the debut LP.

Strange Hearts, led by the opener "Always Friends" is a tad jauntier than the work on the predecessor. Listen to how it shuffles along with a surf groove, and though there's some of that melancholy lurking in the margins, the ensuing whistling and rollicking chord strumming reinforces the lighter side of Secret Cities. "Ice Cream Scene," with its wordless chant intro and shimmery arpeggios, would sound right at home on Pink Graffiti. Its eloping groove and brittle melody harmonize excellently together, all leading up to the brilliant hook of the song--chants, synth stabs, and the arpeggio riff coalescing with both the chants and stabs stopping short of the last bar to let two repetitive flicks of the riff close the hook. It's mesmerizing for its scarcity. "The Park" is a piano-led MJ Parker song, whose enchanting female vocals never fail to give the band added gravitas. "Pebbles" is a terrific Parker slow-burner that'd be a worthy choice for best song on the album, while the title track picks up the mood a little bit to keep things lively.

At this point, friends, all I can do is write the reviews and put them in my Best Of lists. Secret Cities is a fantastic band and I hope they get their due at some point. It's a phenomenal blend of complexity, melody, and songcraft. Perhaps their affinity for ethereal lushness hides their charisma (which is there, for sure), and thus, if you're not paying attention, it's easy to relegate Secret Cities to background music. They are simply too, too good to toil beneath their station.

Track List:
1. Always Friends
2. Ice Cream Scene
3. The Park
4. Love Crime
5. No Pressure
6. Pebbles
7. Strange Hearts
8. Interlude
9. Brief Encounter
10. Forest of Love
11. Portland

Secret Cities: Strange Hearts
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

85 / 100
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