Here’s the thing about powerpop: it’s either very good or hopelessly bland. There’s seemingly no middle ground; artists working in the idiom either knock it out of the park – see Badfinger, Gladhands, Greenberry Woods – or the results are faceless and shamelessly imitative. Happily, Charlotte N.C.-based trio the Eyebrows succeed on Volume, their debut album.
Having Mitch Easter as a producer certainly helps: the man knows, er, volumes about how to present a chimingly melodic group in the most flattering light. But the best producer and studio can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And singer-guitarist-songwriter Jay Garrigan brings the tunes. He’s got an expressive voice with an impressive range (both in span of notes and character). Ably backed by bassist Jon Lock and drummer Shawn Lynch, Garrigan delivers his impassioned, yearning tunes with trademark powerpop exuberance. And the sticky-sweet melodies are delivered with just enough grit to keep Volume from being too slick or poppy.
“It Comes Down Hard” feels a bit like early Joe Jackson, back in the period when the British pianist wasn’t quite sure of what musical direction to pursue; it also recalls White Music-period XTC, which – if done intentionally – is a pretty gutsy move.
I saw the Eyebrows live onstage not long ago, opening for Matthew Sweet. There, Garrigan’s songs were a bit more stripped-down than you’ll find on Volume (the album features some wonderfully retro combo organ on tunes like “I Feel Unloved”), but the tasty musicianship from the powerpop power trio showcased not only the musicians’ ability but their onstage simpatico.
There’s a deliberately uncomfortable, edgy vibe to the Eyebrows’ songs that will likely make the listener of a certain age think of the B-52’s (the silly, unhinged “Avocado”) crossed with Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen. Unlike the happy-face pose struck by far too many powerpop acts, this group has a slightly (but not too) menacing undertone to their musical approach. The lyrics hold up to scrutiny (they’re even printed on the inner sleeve!) and the trio rocks.