Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: The Boy Least Likely To - The Law of the Playground (* * * 1/2)

Cute’ is a word rarely used in a positive manner when it comes to indie rock, but there are a handful of bands that get away with it, including pop-folk duo The Boy Least Likely To. The English band, comprised of multi-instrumentalist Pete Hobbs and lyricist/singer Jof Owen, made a name for themselves with their uber-pleasant debut, The Best Party Ever, which included perhaps the most adorable cover art for any record not exclusively aimed at children. Their bright, sparkly presentation and simple, childlike worldview won the band a legion of converts (along with some detractors), and a fair amount of critical acclaim. The two artists seem sincere in their intent to bring pure musical sunshine to your speakers, and they continue to do so on their new album, The Law of the Playground. The record's artwork immediately enforces this, depicting an unidentifiable and, of course, cute red animal at the helm of a toy tank, complete with plunger-style canon.

The songs throughout Playground remain upbeat, playful, and occasionally silly, with Owen frequently slinging phrases about raisins covered in chocolate, "puppy powers," and being a "big fat balloon." On first listen, the tunes can seem too sticky-sweet to be palatable, especially for an entire album’s worth of songs, but music this affirmative and catchy is awfully hard to hate, and there’s often more than meets the ear to be found within these goofy narratives.

The magic in Owen’s songs comes from the positive, quirky way he deals with the issues and problems of everyday life. Some of the songs on the record are straightforward, like the all-too-obvious “When Life Gives Me Lemons I Make Lemonade,” and the underdog anthem “Every Goliath Has Its David,” but others are less direct. “A Balloon on a Broken String” explains the negative side of being ‘free’ from societal attachments and responsibilities, while “The Boy Least Likely To Is a Machine,” seems to warn of the dangers of finding substitutes for love and human interaction. While these are not exactly new concepts, the lyrics which enforce them help make Playground memorable.

Musically speaking, the album’s bouncy, sunny sound is infectious and fun throughout. Hobbs stays busy, giving Owen’s tales an added measure of whimsy and wonder with guitar, drums, keys, and a variety of other instruments and electronic flourishes, keeping the music entertaining even when the lyrics get a bit too cutesy. Highlights abound: opener “Saddle Up” fits its title with a western vibe provided by some well-placed violin and banjo; “The Boy With Two Hearts” rolls along at half speed on a tuba line (of all things), before layers of guitar, xylophone, and additional horns take over in the chorus; and “Stringing Up Conkers” rocks some handclaps and harmonica.

As much as I will defend the talent and intelligence of The Boy Least Likely To, I will also admit that their music is certainly not for everyone. The explosive pop melodies, shiny production, and peppy, straight-forward lyrics might just drive you nuts if you’re in an irritable mood, or if you can’t handle that much sugary gooiness in your musical diet. After repeated listens of The Law of the Playground, I’m ready to give it some time before I pick it up again. I’ll be back for more though, as this might just be the perfect soundtrack to accompany the approaching summer.

Last Word: The Law of the Playground is another blast of catchy, positive, and almost unbearably sweet pop-rock from The Boy Least Likely To, indie’s most adorably twee duo.