Churchbuilder – Patty Darling

Patty Darling

According to their press release, Churchbuilder is a quintet based in Akron, Ohio, “home of legends Devo and the Waitresses.” Legends? Sure, I’ll buy that, I guess. Their sound, as it is portrayed on this album at least, is “new-wave” pop, deeply indebted to the aforementioned fellow Daytonites, as well as New Order, OMD, and several other acts that emerged during the Reagan presidency. However, the release goes a step further by asserting that Churchbuilder should not be classified by the “now-trendy titles ‘new wave’ and ‘synthpop;’ Churchbuilder’s sound is firmly rooted in 21st century indiepop.” At first I thought, “my, what a bold statement to make.” After consideration, I thought, well, that’s not much craziness at all, is it? After all, the roots of 21st first century indiepop are about as deep as that crabgrass swallowing a strip of dirt that until a few months ago lay hidden underneath a concrete walkway leading inexplicably to the dead center of my backyard.
On their release, Patty Darling, Churchbuilder does a satisfactory job in recalling the plastic perkiness of the happier moments of this “new-wave” music. The backing instruments paint the songs with chirpy riffs, up-tempo beats, and bouncy synth-sounds. This music feels like it was conceived in its entirety during a marathon of John Hughes movies. Several tracks, such as “Castle of Blood” (oh, scary!) and “Vespa,” begin with promising jangly guitar riffs that take me back to those days when my older brother and sister would let me watch MTV with them when our parents weren’t around. Throughout the album, a bouncy melodic baseline keeps true to the base playing running through New Order’s catalog. Something about the song “Dreams” sounds familiar. Maybe it’s the brief Psychedelic Fur-like male vocal, or maybe it captures a little of the wistfulness in OMD music. Whatever it is I’m hearing, in “Dreams,” Churchbuilder’s reminiscences of 80s “new-wave” runs the most true. OK. So there you have it. Churchbuilder, just as the press release says, is a band rooted in 21st century indiepop that builds on the sounds of “new-wave” music.
I can’t reasonably dispute the claim that this music is “rooted in 21st century indiepop.” While it is true that any band recording now can lay claim to this description, Churchbuilder’s music does hold strains of more updated styles. For all their musical winks and backward glances these songs have to their “new-wave” predecessors; the instrumentation reflects more contemporary arrangements. The symphonic excesses that plagued much of “new-wave” can’t be found on these songs. Churchbuilder seems to be mindful of the stripped-down style that has permeated all styles of music in the post-grunge era. Each song features only one or two different synth sounds.
Two female vocalists, Denise Grollnus and Erin Carracher, handle most of the melodies. One usually picks up the lead while the other either harmonizes, echoes certain phrases, or repeats (shouting even) things like “whah-OH! whah-OH! whah-OH!,” or “YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!” Their innocent, clear voices approach the songs in that more-than-meets-the-eye style of early 90s front-women, such as Tanya Donnelly of Belly and Juliana Hatfield. Donnelly and Hatfield could pull that girlish singing off because of the underlying confidence and/or menace in many of their lyrics. Churchbuilder’s lyrics, on the other hand, have the feel that they were written on the back of someone’s Trig notebook. The guileless lines such as “and you’re so NOT fun!” in “Castle of Blood” and “he didn’t love me – Sob! Sob!” in the aptly titled “Sob Sob” just wore me down.
In more than a few instances, I found their singing (or shouting) annoying. On some of the songs, one of the vocalists affects an English accent. OK, I admit it. That was bad enough to be funny. Sadly, that accent distracts from an otherwise pretty good song, the trumpet-accompanied “P.S. I Miss You.” In “Sob Sob,” the echoing singer draws out “Oregon” to sound like “Orega-HA-on.” OK. In a way, that was funny, too. But when they interject their “yeah yeah’s” and their “wha- OH’s,” that’s not funny. The women sound like their intentionally trying to sabotage their own music by re-recording their voices over the music after the tracks have already been completed, a la Mystery Science Theater.
I can’t say that I enjoyed Patty Darling. It feels like Churchbuilder attempted to revive that 80s pop feel within the limits of more modest 21st century arrangements. True, there was much to jeer at in some of the over elaborateness that eventually drowned “new-wave.” But despite those lavish arrangements, much of those tunes that we remember from the 80s paid careful attention to creating intensely melodic songs. Unfortunately, Churchbuilder’s spare 90s sensibilities expose their nascent songwriting capabilities and their adolescent vocal interpretations. This album could be those songs that we don’t remember from the 80s; those other nine songs surrounding a one-hit wonder. Patty Darling never falls flat on its face; it doesn’t attempt to stand high enough for a fall to hurt.