With last year's critically-lauded Divers, freak folk chanteuse Joanna Newsom investigated the many, many diverse historical layers of New York City, even going so far as to do a kind of time-traveling, pop-cultural autobiographical meanderings, somewhere between Gangs Of New York and Run Lola Run.
This is not entirely a new conceit. Pop musicians have been mining history through the lens of catchy pop songs since at least the ‘60s from Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle to Sufjan Stevens’ excellent, but derailed, state series, Illinoise and Greetings From Michigan.
The final result ends up in a grey zone between musical theater and pop/rock n’ roll. And as with any crossbreeding, you run the risk of inheriting the species' weaknesses, as well as its strengths. Unfortunately, musical theater's genome is particularly rife with infirmity - the sonic equivalent of a slack-jawed, watery-eyed Greyhound.
The City Life from Brooklyn's Sans Frills is a pop concept record, exploring the many aspects of New York City living from subways to bike rides to corrupt police, largely built around singer Nick Freeman's reedy vocals and economical guitar playing, which occasionally bursts into ornate gorgeousness.
Freeman cites the often-overlooked Beck albums Midnight Vultures and Mutations as some of the biggest influences on The City Life, which he describes as "the most eclectic and underplayed albums of their time." Personally, I'm a fan of those records, but part of the lukewarm reception is magpie-like hodgepodge is a hard look to pull off. It's like emptying the entire contents of your spice rack into a dish. Yes, it could end up as gourmet cuisine, but it can also end up as grey slop.
Freeman's eclecticism isn't all bad, as it means there are moments I truly enjoyed - the brooding, emotive synth and guitar of "Morning Jam," the field recordings and walking bass line of "Subway Vendor," but too much of The City Life is built around Freeman's slice-of-life diatribes. For some odd reason, Freeman seems entirely hung up on bikes, and I almost can't count how many time he says the word "bicycle" on this record. Considering the jaunty, sing-song, sing-a-long quality of many of these songs, like "Bicycle (Part 1)," which seems to inherently bring to mind the Queen single "Bicycle." I know a lot of people like that song and the style, but this is one instance where I don't feel like overcoming my reviewer's bias. I've always found that song and that style, incredibly irksome, repetitious, banal and unnecessary.
The City Life ends up like listening to "Bicycle" on repeat for an hour, occasionally breaking the monotony with a Randy Newman-style stream-of-consciousness style, that isn't much of a reprieve.
Basically, to be blunt, I like a lot of the music a lot, which features fine performances and above average recording fidelity, but I don't care much for the vocals or lyrics. It wears on the ears too quickly, like eating an entire meal of key lime dishes.
For those that like some concept with their pop or who enjoy some Bertolt Brecht-like song cycles, they will likely tap their toes and sing along with the catchy choruses.
We are dedicated to informing the public about the different types of independent music that is available for your listening pleasure as well as giving the artist a professional critique from a seasoned music geek. We critique a wide variety of niche genres like experimental, IDM, electronic, ambient, shoegaze and much more.
Are you one of our faithful visitors who enjoys our website? Like us on Facebook