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The No Surf Review


The Lowdown:

The Spring Standards

James Cleare (vocals/guitar/bass/drums), Heather Robb (vocals/melodica/keyboard/glockenspiel/drums) and James Smith (vocals/guitar/bass/harmonica/trumpet/drums)

Based In:
Brooklyn, NY




Release Date:

Parachute Shooter Records

Previous Releases:
No One Will Know (EP, 2008), Would Things Be Different (2010)

Folk rock, indie rock


Related Articles:

The Spring Standards, yellow//gold cover art

Rating: 8 out of 10



May 17, 2012


The Spring Standards: yellow//gold

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


The Spring Standards break into new territory with their double EP release yellow//gold, but it may just be an insidious plot to bring floral prints back into style. (l-r) James Cleare, James Smith, Heather Robb. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

It’s been several years since three musically orientated friends from the hinterlands straddling Pennsylvania and Delaware randomly reunited in New York City and christened themselves the Spring Standards. Since their formation the band has featured an eclectic mix of sounds, with their live shows swinging wildly—yet coherently—through diverse genres and disparate influences while all three members bounce from instrument to instrument with such alacrity that one would swear each must have six arms. Yet the group’s previous two releases, the 2008 EP No One Will Know and 2010’s Would Things Be Different, each had a solid folk-rock base. Their newest release, a double EP entitled yellow//gold moves in a different direction, with a feel that is much more at home in a Williamsburg club. It’s taken a while, but Brooklyn has finally seeped into the Spring Standards’ music.

I have to admit that this was not what I was expecting from these guys. In fact, my first listen of the album left me more perplexed than anything else. But one of my favorite horror stories is how the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau, used to listen to dozens of albums a day, one time, straight through, and write his reviews based on these at-best-cursory glances within their musical depths. This is one of the reasons Robert Christgau is a giant tool and why music reviews never gained the written resonance of film or literary reviews. No Surf Music was founded to try to undo the damage done by boneheads like Christgau, and I often relish albums that have to be lived with for a while before they can be understood. yellow//gold is just such a work, many-layered and far more meaningful than it appears at first blanche.

The fact that the Spring Standards have incorporated more influences from the New York indie rock scene doesn’t mean that the band has entirely jettisoned their roots. In fact, the juxtaposition of the past and present is endemic to the work. yellow, with its mellower sound and melancholic dreaminess, harkens back to childhood and fleeting, only-glimpsed memories, while gold, noisier and more energetic, seems to bask in urban chaos. The group’s music has always been a sort of montage, deftly patching varying musical forms onto their folk rock base, changing from track to track, and this album simply takes that meme a step further.

Take the leadoff track from yellow, “Only Skin.” To call this song wistful would be like describing a circus clown dancing a soft shoe in a leaky nitrous oxide factory as cheerful. It’s downright heartbreaking. Based around Heather Robb’s piano accented by percussion and acoustic guitar, it is a showcase for her mournful voice and is highlighted by a sawing swirl halfway between a weep and a wail. The whole thing resonates perfectly with a blend of pain and longing, the lyrics filled with hazy childhood cameos and flickers of unfulfilled dreams:

Remember me with yellow hair
And freckles on my nose.
Remember me in purple shoes
And turquoise pantyhose.
Remember my two ankles
My fingers and my toes.
Remember me with yellow hair
And freckles on my nose.

Your name is just a noise now;
Your face is only skin.
The only thing we ever sing
Are songs of could-have-been.
We never got to end the thing
We never could begin.
Your name is just a noise now;
Your face is only skin.
Your name is just a noise now;
Your face is only skin.

The video that accompanies the piece only highlights the feelings of dreamscape isolation. The shots are often out of focus and quickly cut. Although all three members are portrayed playing their parts, they are sequestered in separate rooms, adding an ethereal sense of being at once distinct and conjoined. Only briefly are all three pictured at the same time, like a blink of recognition that fades as soon as it is focused upon.

The next track, “Heavy Home,” walks more familiar ground, with an acoustic guitar picking out a light, ambulatory line and the band’s signature three-part harmonies used to great effect. At the same time, the Brooklyn indie-rock influence is highly evident in the bridge, where the tempo kicks up into a snare-heavy beat and the reverbed vocals gain a hipster-club urgency that stands in contrast to the otherwise delicate, mellow track. There’s even a hint of Indian-influence-era Beatles thrown in. It works, and the song is a fine one.

“Chicago” is a particularly pleasant song with a rainy-day laziness. Feeling like a more complex riff on 60’s folk rock, it’s another one that goes through a distinct transition. The track starts off simply, with a strummed guitar above a light bass and oddly airy glockenspiel strikes and woodwind flutters, but at the end trips into a faster-tempoed, multi-textured, and much sunnier section punctuated by trumpet and a light synthesized string dance. The chorus, in its own simple way, captures the paradoxically constant, cyclical, and fluctuating nature of human relations:

I need you now
Like I needed you then,
Like I’ll need you again.

And darlin’, you won’t get out of mind.
I can’t leave you behind.

I need you now
Like I needed you then,
Like I’ll need you again.

“Crushing Pennies” is an up-tempo but melancholic folk frolic driven by a light acoustic guitar. It’s most distinguishing feature, however, is the multi-track vocal harmonies that seem to have Heather in four or five places at once. With a feeling akin to a Simon & Garfunkel tune, it may be the mostly simply pleasant piece in the collection.

A slow, mellow waltz, “Enemies” ambles along gorgeously, as if it doesn’t care about where it’s going so much as feeling at home where it is. Heather’s voice is particularly delicate, and oddly reminiscent of Feist. It can’t help but be sad, even as it flutters and grows among the paradoxically quiet but forceful piano notes and gentle harmonica. The lyrics read like a combination of a relationship post-mortem and an act of self-realization, although those things always do seem to go hand-in-hand:

Don’t close your eyes.
It’s no surprise.
I’m adrift in the ocean
And you are the coast.
You’re the one I’m ignoring
‘Cause I need you the most.
Heaven help us
If we get too close.

Are we enemies of simplicity?
Have we done wrong?
Or are we just friends
Who have touching hands
Linger a little too long.

How can this be wrong?
And forever might not be too long.

Starting off the gold portion of the release, “Nightmare” begins with a hand-clapping gospel choir-inspired chant of “no.” The mood then totally reverses itself as the drums kick into a cymbal-heavy beat and Heather comes in with some jive piano, surrounded by percussive effects and dreamy, distorted voices. There’s an undeniable slice of 70’s funk in the mix. The combined effect certainly causes a nightmarish paranoia, yet the song itself remains engaging and listenable throughout. This cut would fit right in at any Lower East Side hipster club, and Heather’s voice reminds me of no one so much as No Surf Friend Kelley McRae, especially on her own urban-inspired album Highrises in Brooklyn.

“Moon Disappear” has a sense of urgency to it, almost like it’s chasing you through a dark night rather than dancing in your ears. The vocals are particularly forceful, and when paired with the driving bass beat and multi-layered guitars they seem reminiscent of Ann Wilson of Heart fame. Particularly cool is the plucked string line that charges in late in the song, accenting the accelerated sense of freneticism as it forces its way in overtop the many other layers of instrumentation.

The crazy love song “Here We Go” would fit in perfectly with the more eclectic side of 90’s alternative rock, pulsing and paranoiac, then powerful and expansive. It also appears to have some 80’s unsucky rock influences, specifically the Cure and the Cars. Particularly enthralling are the up-tempo choruses, which see James Smith transitioning from rhythmically spitting his lyrics to bright shouting. I won't say anything about the song's video except that it freaks me out on so many levels... but sometimes that's a good thing.

Ok, I promise these kids are a lot less scary than they look, and their music is pure sonic joy. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

With a surreal electronic beat and a sense of third-eye consciousness, “Unmarked Pill” is an ode to fucked-upedness. While the introduction and slower interludes seem equally influenced by Devo and Indian mystic yogis, the majority of the song is strangely bright, with steamy sax licks and upbeat singing masking mostly darkly-themed lyrics. The longest track on the album, it also is the most out of place, which is my only contention. Even Heather admitted it’s like nothing else the band has ever done, and it’s possible that it thus breaks up the flow of the work as a whole. Still, as the last song on the EP the effect isn’t too disconcerting.

yellow//gold is certainly an eclectic work, which makes it all the more intriguing. After allowing the new stylings to grow on me through repeated renditions, I can say that there are plenty of fine tracks that will get heavy future rotation. While most of the songs would strain to reach the pure enjoyability of earlier Spring Standards pieces like “Queen of the Lot,” “The Hush,” “Halcyon Days” or “Reply,” the release as a whole marks a step forward in the complexity of the band’s music. The almost bewildering combinations of instrumentation and vocals produces layer upon layer of musical goodies in virtually every song, and yellow//gold marks the Spring Standards once again as a prime band to watch on the national indie rock scene.


Buy yellow//gold on Amazon!


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