Woods + Vivians! Woods + Vivians! Woods + Vivians! Yeah, that should sum-up all you need to know about The Babies and their quite good self-titled debut, right?
Well, no. As far as Woods goes, the Brooklyn folk band is very much Jeremy Earl’s project, with their appeal hinging on his affecting voice and the live-produced tape effects that provide texture to surround it. Sure, bassist Kevin Morby is in Woods, but he plays bass. He plays bass in a folk band. I honestly can’t recall a single bass note in a Woods song off the top of my head. And I like Woods. A lot.
So, referencing Woods has about as much relevance as referencing Morby’s high school music teacher or first sexual experience when examining The Babies. Sure, these helped shape him into the person and musician he is today, but they don’t really have much to do with any of the sounds coming out of The Babies’ record. Maybe Morby’s first love will argue that point, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take.
Then we have Cassie Ramone, Morby’s songwriting partner in The Babies and lead singer from Vivian Girls. Though an integral part of the project, Ramone feels very much like a supporting cast member to Morby’s center stage. In fact, the press release for the band references The Velvet Underground, with Ramone being the rough-around-the-edges Nico. But Lou Reed was The Velvet Underground, Nico was simply a nice touch.
In fact, a project that has a lot of similarity to The Babies is the Jenny Lewis/Johnathan Rice collaboration Jenny and Johnny. Both combine infectious pop-hooks that have been kicked around the road for a while and both manage to take any chemistry that is present between the two leads and stick a bloody knife right through the middle of it. “Sunset” centers on death and love, with Ramone, in a new-found effective vocal style that more closely resembles “talking” than “singing,” and gives a convincingly ghost-like menace that manages to sound both frightening and sexy. Maybe I’m just a sick fuck.
Morby, though, carries the project with a remarkable charisma and an inclination towards making intelligent music decisions. The pacing of the album is a strength, with the Ramone-lead “All Things Come To Pass” (a low-point for Ramone’s voice) followed by the boot-stomping hip-shaker “Meet Me In The City.” There are plenty of lose-yourself-in-fun moments on the record, but “Meet Me In The City” tops them all and comes at the most necessary moment.
The Babies pull off punk swagger (“Personality”) as well as they pull of no-fi neo-anthems (“Breaking The Law”), but there is more going on here than a couple raw talents collaborating. It often feels like Ramone and Morby are challenging each other, filling in gaps that the other lacks and allowing them to improve upon their previous creative output. Nothing revolutionary ever really comes to fruition, but The Babies is a worthwhile enough diversion to make me genuinely excited for the next Vivian Girls record, and think that maybe Morby should stay in the spotlight and ask Woods to find a new bassist.