The gang might try for sunshine pop, but tinny production and hammy strings prove more confining than joyful. Similar to The 5th Dimension’s debut, singers sound trapped behind panes of glass; and unlike Up, Up and Away, this doesn’t have any bassy backing glides to ease the pain. On the other hand, shots at the straight world read as so eager to distract from radio aspirations, they come out as bizarro highlights (“Trouble”, “Commercial”).
It’s not as overproduced as the debut, and the group is exploring their folk and jazz interests more, but with a reduction in humor comes the nagging suspicion that they slap these motifs, accents, and tempo changes together without an end in mind. Given the lack of vocal connection or presence, the mix isn’t helping them either. Plus, the few remaining strings stick out in the worst places, easily overpowering any hint of tranquility (“Echoes”).
Masquerading as a 45, this album marks the full emergence of the wit and humor we only saw glimpses of the past two go-arounds. Where Like to Get to Know You‘s back-half medley felt arbitrarily constructed and sequenced, these two feel much more of a piece: A silly music theory round is plenty of fun on its own (“1-3-5-8”), but when the motif returns in “Jane”‘s escape to the woods (playful flute and all), its established goofiness makes the grassy tumble even more cheerful.
None of this would be possible, though, without adequate production, and this is the first time Spanky and Our Gang enjoy a stereo mix that doesn’t suck the life out of their harmonies. Even better, they seem aware of this. “Leopard Skin Phones” makes open reference to the glories of dual-channel sound, sending tape effects and voices zooming through the field with reckless, almost twisted glee. Best of all, the tracks frequently gets stuck in a jittery harmony figure that unspools across itself a nervewracking number of times before finally releasing the slack. It’s a sensation that reappears altered later on, both in the aforementioned “Jane” (suggesting darker waters ahead) and “Since You’ve Gone”, where frazzled rhymes and frantic vocal ricochets taunt a vulnerable verse.
There’s still more that impresses, from “Hong Kong Blues”‘ drizzling keyboards to “Give a Damn”‘s feel-good chorus anthem, but the point should be clear: No matter how unexpected, Spanky and Our Gang make better pop tweakers than any of their past folk/jazz forays ever suggested.