Catherine Avenue

Love Minus Zero Recordings

Wow, this one’s a surprise. Grownup, elegiac dreampop from two Florida transplants and an LA songbird native. Catherine Avenue has all the dignity and bearing of a Steely Dan or a Lindsey Buckingham, but channeled into sun-dazed, Laurel Canyon-hiking, orchestral maneuvers in broad daylight. As much Flaming Lips as it is Van Dyke Parks, Stevie Nicks, Spiritualized without all of the Jesus and drug stuff, Eric Matthews, and even Mark Lanegan.

Fine with me. But wait, shouldn’t I be hating this? No, because it’s not self-conscious retro-fetishizing or sniffing the insoles of Brian Wilson’s dirty shoes. The sound, and the lyrics, are firmly grounded in a sense of place — the broken dreams and faded glamour centered around Los Angeles and the Hollywood Hills. Lyrics reference specific landmarks, streets, and parks (“LA Is Mars”), usually to some sad, melancholy effect — like real life, every story ends sad. Jared Flamm’s voice reminds me of a punk singer for some reason, just slower. Kala Savage has a clear and subtle delivery.

It’s hard to explain, but in the opening gambit of “Catherine Avenue” one feels a sense of occasion, beyond just indie pop scraping, or trying on your parent’s ’70s gear for giggles, or watching “Yacht Rock,” this is real, man. Intimately recorded piano, drums, spare tasty electric guitar, sundry obsolete electronic synths and effects boxes and soaring vocal harmonies are like, trust me, MOR/AOR John Doe and Exene Cervenka crossed with, dunno, the Carpenters. This is why “Country Girl” was the best moment on the second CSNY album. Everything just feels bigger, more cinematic, emotional on Catherine Avenue. Bathe the whole world in 35mm melancholy.

“Who Were You Thinkin’ Of” almost sounds too much like an outtake from Rumours with its bubbly, coked-up new-wave/reggae sheen. “Estelle” is another one that’s just TOO much — too much aping of various pop (!) moments, too familiar. “I’m Gonna Tell You Something,” however, gorgeously epitomizes the very stuff this album is made of: a potent and unique hybrid of the storming-the-heavens reveries of Mazzy Star and Spacemen 3, firmly tethered to homebrewed and heavenly West Coast harmonies (as much country as the Sunset Strip), and a delight in off-kilter instruments. “Petals” starts out small and intimate, (girl and piano), but then becomes this fucking huge, like, anthem. Imagine the set production for the video of this fucker. “Careless and Unconcerned” is sprawling wonder. It’s their “November Rain,” or at the very least, their “Estranged” (the better song anyway). Plaintive pools of piano chords start off “Life in a Box” as a miniature, boy/girl lament, steadily growing into a dramatic, country-rock-spacepop fever dream, complete with harmonica solo — like primo Neil Young, but way more theatrical.

Albums like this make me realize why The Band upped sticks from the comforting forests of Woodstock into the heart of LA and Zuma — the golden iceberg — it’s a dream, baby, of sun and lazy, quiet beauty, with a dark, dark heart. Now Catherine Avenue is good, but fuck, man, now that they’ve got the more obvious homage n’ hokey moments to California golden k-tel soundz that many parts of this album are clearly in thrall to, man, imagine how the NEXT album is going to sound. Hope they don’t blow it all like in a Kenneth Anger story or something — myth’s a tenacious fucker to shake loose.

And don’t think I don’t notice that on the liner notes, the songs are divided into two separate sides. Nice. I love the autumnal effect of the cover photo and it includes a band portrait which is pretty much always a good thing. Especially this bunch, they’re scruffily handsome. I might be smitten.

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