I’m always ready to be disarmed by a breezy pop combo. Over breakfast, shoveling snow, riding the bus, whenever. Just lay down some acoustic strums, overlay them with crystalline guitars, then sing and harmonize about old lovers wistfully and you’re about 3/4ths of the way there.
But that doesn’t mean covering that last quarter distance is a no-brainer. It takes the right mix of innocence and wisdom, effortless tunes (“effortless” is good thing in any genre, of course, but less crucial in the more artsy-fartsy ones), and warmth – but without weakness. The heartache has to be real, but the music should hint toward the redemption from misery made possible by those aforementioned guitars and harmonies.
Seattle’s Math and Physics Club earned some nice critical high-fives for their self-titled 2006 debut of sweet, no-surprises sensitive pop. For comparisons, it’s enough to mention earlier Belle & Sebastian and leave it at that, though M&SC are definitely more conventional overall. But where B&S have other kinds of ambition – lyrically, thematically and compositionally – M&SC are admirably pure in their intent. Their hearts are on their sleeves, lovers with trusting natures, but they sound resilient in their own humble way, too, not just a bunch of sad-sack doormats. Their tunes are soft and bright but propulsive, too.
A couple of well-received EPs and a lengthy downtime later and now the trio is back with I Shouldn’t Look as Good as I Do, a record that offers basically the same charms – this isn’t a sound that begs for constant tweaking – at roughly the same return on your geek-pop dollar. “Trying to Say I Love You,” is a standout, a shuffling ditty about – well, the title pretty much sums up the theme, but it’s important that the bashful difficulty in vocalist Charles Bert’s staring-at-my-shoes delivery is balanced by the playful drumming. Similarly, the assertive little two-beat bassline on “Love or Loneliness” gives the song it’s own rhythmic solidity that works to bolster the gentleness of the song overall. Nice textural touches here, too, like the barely-there vocal harmony and the strings that swell quietly underneath the chiming guitars late in the song.
Clever though it is, I could do without the too-cute “Everybody Loves a Showtune,” but thankfully, that’s the only song on I Shouldn’t Look as Good as I Do that fails the twee test. And I really did want to avoid using that word, because it sounds too pejorative for a record that has as much swing as this one does. “Will You Still Love Me?” for example, is too effective in it’s jumped-up beat and sliding minor-seven chords to be consigned to mere cuteness. The rest of the record too employs rhythm to varying degrees of subtlety to make the point that sensitivity does not preclude tapping one’s foot, at the very least.
Math and Physics Club has the same kind of bottomlessly effective simplicity that a band like New Zealand’s the Bats has (and, yes, I mention the Bats every chance I get). In the face of constantly mutating genres looking for an unexploited trick or sparkling new production techniques grafted on to the same chord progressions, it’s uplifting to hear the old anxieties and pleasures set to music that seems impervious to change.