COUNT THE SIDES Brenda reshapes their sound on 'Fix Your Eyes.'
The paradoxes in Brenda, the rock band of three (or sometimes four) members split geographically between Portland and New York, are hard to iron out. Their new record, Fix Your Eyes, is at once too complex, cerebral, and downerish to appeal to the masses; too catchy and musically inclined to work for the punks; and too obsessed with classic rock to impress the art-school kids. They're a hard group to pin down, and that has every bit to do with their appeal.
Contrasted with Silver Tower, the group's 2010 debut, these songs are marked by Peet Chamberlain's move from bass guitar to keys and combo organ. Chamberlain handles more melodies now than he did on bass, and his bright, swirling keys can better support the brassy, impressionistic vocals of frontman Josh Loring. And while Loring's guitar work is one of the band's strengths, it's always been more colorful and expressive than skeletal. Keyboards can tease from both of those instruments more harmonies than bass ever could, and Fix Your Eyes is a sort of grand declaration of that discovery.
As a whole far richer and more adventurous than Silver Tower, Brenda's latest is also a lot more brooding. As if by design, some sections drag, yet the truly excellent songs carry such propulsive kinetic energy as to bore a hole into the skull. "Boxy Music" is such a gem: a fast-paced and cerebral pop song whose brilliant surging melodies are like horses whipped into motion by the adroit drumming of D.J. Moore. Tracks like this and the rollicking "Hard Pleaser" are the album's major highs, triumphs of the pop formulas they started the journey with in the first place.
A spacious back half lacks for singles, but it's also where Brenda get more comfortable. "House of Grain" steeps in dual keyboard lines before popping into a buoyant, R.E.M.-y chorus, though the formula works less well applied to the nimble acoustic ballad "What To Do," which holds off a syrupy coda just long enough to work. Two Chamberlain-sung songs startle the first time through — it's almost a different band — but their pop-ballad arrangements help cut the album's densities, particularly "(franklin tower)", which transforms a sardonic theme on par with Warren Zevon into a dizzying lullabye.
My glowing opinion of the track notwithstanding, Fix Your Eyes oddly suffers from a somewhat lackluster recording of "Boxy Music." The song's a climax of their live show (watch them slay a live studio version online at Breakthru Radio's Serious Business in New York), so it's disappointing to find the version captured here, a/k/a the one I'd play all summer, low-volume and comparatively tepid. But the offense pales to those committed in the title track, which foists onto us a smirky organ lead over five tiresome minutes as ironic and mind-numbingly confectionary as something Weezer would write. A band's willingness to change their elements is always commendable, but a good bassline pummels the echo chambers of my gut more than the fat, bright, manic timbre of an organ ever could, and tracks like "Fix Your Eyes" suggest Brenda have made a questionable concession.