The Casting Couch – Row Your Boat

The Casting Couch
Row Your Boat

On its debut EP, 5 Songs, the Casting Couch sounded equal parts charming, tentative, and amateurish. Row Your Boat, the group’s debut full-length, is a bolder, slicker affair; unlike 5 Songs, it shows real ambition. More interestingly, Row Your Boat finds the alt-country/indie-pop outfit countering its low-key coyness with more upbeat rhythms and brighter instrumentation. The new incarnation of the Casting Couch is occasionally bubbly, if not quite effervescent, and it certainly places a greater emphasis on the indie-pop ethos that appeared on 5 Songs only as a glimmer, seemingly suffocated by plodding tempos.

Perhaps in an attempt to answer allegations of having fostered a methodically lazy sound, the group opens the album with a bop-bop pop song that sounds like early Wilco gone twee. Replete with a mid-song breakdown and an up-tempo reprise at the end, the title track, “Row Your Boat,” holds up surprisingly well against the compositions of more seasoned tweesters such as Tullycraft and All Girl Summer Fun Band. Even the lyrics fit the mold. “He had 16 bottles of wine, seven copies of the New York Times / And if they’d just give a dime / For every crossword letter he’d be feeling fine,” sings vocalist Wendy Mitchell, in broken phrases.

The album’s auspicious opener introduces the more polished sound of the Casting Couch’s second release and the pop-infused energy that propels several of its tracks. According to the refrain of “Strawberry,” a mid-tempo ray of sunshine featuring trumpets, hand-claps, and cheery vocals, “Even broken words are right two times a day.” Sung over music this good, the lyrics – which might sound cloying elsewhere – come off as truly affecting, even witty. Even better is “Mix Tape,” a smooth keyboard number with a scat-sung chorus (“ooo weee, oh oh oh oh / sha la la”) that is as infectious as the song’s underlying melodic line. In a husky baritone, a male vocalist sings: “That old mix tape he made for Valentine’s day still has all your favorite songs / And you still wear the sweater that he bought you for Christmas even now that he’s gone.” The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt is an obvious reference point.

Though “Strawberry” and “Mix Tape” fulfill the promise of the title track, the album opener is still something of a misleading tease. Row Your Boat hardly abandons alt-country for fuzzy pop; in fact, the record is full of slow-burner ballads with gentle twang. It is during these songs that the Casting Couch finds itself in the same overarching struggle of its debut EP: to make simple, plaintive songs with little harmonic or melodic movement sound poignant rather than boring. Row Your Boat finds the Casting Couch honing that skill but often still failing to engage the listener.

“Song About Dying,” “Replaced,” and “Circumstance” form a trio of sparse, slightly melancholy, thoroughly innocuous ballads. There is never a jarring moment as the group’s lead singer and songwriter Wendy Mitchell slowly plows through these numbers in her down-to-earth, fragile, yet empowered voice. Nor are there melodies – not even fragments here or there – that are the least bit memorable. Mitchell is an endearing vocalist, but the melodies of her ballads are spectacularly unremarkable; she writes lovely verses but often struggles to seal the deal with an addictive chorus. On all three of the aforementioned ballads, Mitchell settles for a workmanlike one-line refrain. It’s a crutch, and it makes for melodies that are always workable but seldom great.

In my review of the Casting Couch’s debut EP, I ended on a note of skepticism. “It remains to be seen whether the Casting Couch is capable of making a full-length record that consistently rises above background music,” I remarked. Row Your Boat is a clear evolution from its predecessor, 5 Songs, and its highlights – particularly “Strawberry” and “Mix Tape” – hint at even better things to come. Like 5 Songs, however, the Casting Couch’s debut album has trouble asserting itself when its less-memorable melodies blur together until they drift to the back of the listener’s consciousness. Ultimately, Row Your Boat is best described as extremely promising; as to the question of whether the Casting Couch can make an entire album of engaging songs, it still remains to be seen.