From the beginning, as early as 2008‘s “Meet Me In The City” single, the appropriateness of the Babies simplistic moniker has been quite evident. Both in the youthful abandon of their songwriting and the gleefully adolescent lyricism, Cassie Ramone (of Vivian Girls) and Kevin Morby (of Woods) have brewed a particularly potent version of your older brother’s garage rock band, and on Our House On The Hill it’s more of the same. It’s a tried and true rock n’ roll formula that they trade in, but for every stale chord progression or clunker of a lyric, Morby and Ramone make up for it tenfold in their ever insistent vocal interplay and general emphasis on the good ol’ beer tossing, fuzzy singalong camaraderie of garage bands of years past.
On The Babies, their self-titled full length debut, Morby and Ramone spun their evocative, if minimalistic lyrics, in such catchy, inspiring ways that they seemed to hit a sort of garage rock glass ceiling. With the scuzzy production in mind, there was only so much they could do in the way of construction of catchy surface level rock songs. It sounds disparaging certainly, but these were Best Coast anthems boiled down to mantras, no amount of shouting about “breaking the law” will reach transcendence (just ask Judas Priest). It was at its best moments–which were many, admittedly–simply a set of catchy rock songs, earnest in their construction, but shallow in their approach.
So what is a rock and roller to do? The Babies simply wouldn’t be the Babies without their patchy lyrics and rough-and-tumble guitar scuzz, so Morby’s answer is ostensibly to call up his pal Jarvis Taverniere from his main band, record this followup in his studio (Rear House), up the fidelity, and stick to their strengths in those catchy pop tunes.
The Babies merit has largely relied on their live show, in which their simple songs are turned into fists in the air rave-ups, brilliant shout-alongs that celebrate (and reward) the simplicity of the lyrics, but on record there’s traditionally been more than a few groan-inducing lyrical turns. Even on this new record that trend continues despite largely improved songwriting and an abundance of catchy melodies. On “Mean” where Morby pulls his best Leonard Cohen impersonation, vividly painted verses are offset by the cry of the chorus (“You’re mean mean mean mean/mean mean mean mean/mean mean mean mean/ and you hurt my feelings”). It’s a relatable sentiment for sure, but only if you take it through the lens of the Babies’ largely heart-on-sleeve lyrics does such a line become mildly excusable.
Expected missteps aside, on Our House On The Hill Morby and Ramone largely trade on a similar songwriting formula to greater effect, given the improved fidelity. The buzz and the clatter of something like “Moonlight Mile” isn’t a far cry from many of the standout singles of their debut. But with the more muscular production it’s allowed further legible detail where “Meet Me In The City” was content in loose-handed impressionistic strokes.
All that said, for every songwriting and production step forward, this new record seems missing a certain oomph that the debut had in spades. “Wild,” “Caroline,” and “Meet Me In The City” for all their faults had a clear-eyed communal enthusiasm that isn’t approached, even on the best tracks here. What results is a more even effort, a more accomplished record, by all stretches of the imagination, but one that lacks a single truly brilliant track to elevate it above the legion of Brooklyn guitar bands. The Babies bottled the lightning of a fertile songwriting partnership on their debut, and with this followup they seem to have fleshed out their sound as a band. It may have started as a side project, and may go down in the history books as a supergroup, but if nothing else The Babies is a band that’s justified its existence and future output through Our House On The Hill.