There’s something to be said for “summer albums” – that is, the kind of pop record that serves well for windows down highway driving on a hot day, or just laying in the grass making wishes and conversation under a starry nighttime blanket. Despite the ominous title of Frank Bango’s The Sweet Songs of Decay, the collection of tunes Bango has assembled on his fourth full-length release do indeed add up to a marvelous soundtrack to the days of summer.
Don’t let the fact that the album is on Bango’s own Sincere Recordings be a boon to the album. Frank Bango is not the garden variety, dime-a-dozen indie pop guy who needs to release things himself because it’s the only way they’ll get heard. Bango has shared gigs with Richard Buckner, Frank Black, Ken Stringfellow and Lloyd Cole, and The Sweet Songs of Decay features work from members of Luna, Skeleton Key, Vic Chesnutt and Joe Jackson. This is obviously a man whose body of work is stored.
The Sweet Songs of Decay is a sparse, yet textured album. There’s no crazy ‘wall of sound’ sonics going on, but at the same time, Bango is smart enough to stay away from the ‘acoustic singer guy’ vibe, as well. The collection of sounds is nuanced, and after just one listen, the tunes give off the sense that Bango feels a closeness to his songs that is far deeper than most musicians – a feeling that helps to explain why Bango has only released four albums over a 14 year span despite critical acclaim for his previous three works.
Bango’s songwriting has always drawn comparisons to Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, both worthwhile comparisons though the Costello bit rings truest as Bango flexes a bit of Elvis C. in his vocal cords on upbeat numbers such as “What this Place Needs” and “I Saw the Size of the World.”
The strongest Costello similarity results in the best song of the album, as the upbeat “Angela Eagleton” tells the story of an artistically talented (“hidden away from the rest of the school by a box of 64 colors”), though downtrodden elementary school girl who was constantly picked on by other students (“and she never even looked up”). Bango ponders what she’s doing as “24 summers have melted away” and he tries to figure out what’s brought her to his mind, and eventually laments that he never had the courage to utter three little words, “good morning, Angela.” Musically, the track is a light-hearted romp with a frolicking bass part and brush drums along side some bubbling touches of keyboards and acoustic strumming. Thematically, though, it roots deep in the process of realizing how little sense people make of their younger selves make as they grow older.
As if to enforce the concept that The Sweet Sounds of Decay are a perpetual cycle, closing track “Gardenvariety” is a three minute amalgamation of various free sounds sourced nature sounds that, when the album is played on repeat, bleed seamlessly in to those the same sounds which introduce the album’s marvelous opening folk song, “You Always Begin By Saying Goodbye.” “Bunny in a Bunny Suit” is a slow, soulful number that sees Bango “pretending to be himself again” – a.k.a., a bunny in a bunny suit, or, “A vampire with plastic teeth” (incidentally, the artwork mimics this song with Bongo sitting on a bench next to the Easter Bunny). The album’s only real trip-up is the slightly clumsy slow jam “She’ll Miss the Spider,” though Bango redeems that near the end of the record with the stellar, stark piano ballad “If A Plane Goes Down.”
The Sweet Songs of Decay is a great mellow pop album, the kind that manages to create a relaxing, laid-back mood despite some darker overtones in the lyrics. If there wind up being three pop albums better than this in 2008, then the music industry will be a blessed place – because those would have to be three damn fine albums. Frank Bango’s put together an engaging set of tunes that only gets better with every listen – so much better, in fact, that The Sweet Songs of Decay’s got to be a front-runner on the short list for best album of 2008 thus far.