California-obsessed Irish group moves forward by going backward
he Thrills’ saga is a familiar one: Band makes impressive debut album, gets showered with kisses from fans and critics alike, falls victim to the sophomore slump and then enters an extended period of struggle and self-examination en route to the all-important third album.
What makes this story more colorful than most is that, prior to recording that heralded first LP, 2003’s So Much for the City, The Thrills left their hometown of Dublin for an extended working holiday in southern California, the source of their musical inspirations, soaking up the sights and sounds of the Cali coastline. The music was suffused with the indigenous pop of decades past—The Byrds and Beach Boys especially—while the song titles transparently revealed the band’s sundappled preoccupations: “Big Sur,” “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far),” “Hollywood Kids,” “Deckchairs and Cigarettes.” Thrills writer/singer Conor Deasy, boyishly handsome and blessed with a voice like torn velvet, seemed ready for his close-up.
Flushed with confidence, Deasy cranked out the next batch of songs on the tour bus, and the band returned to the studio, switching producers from Tony Hoffer (Beck, Belle & Sebastian) to D. Sardy (Oasis, Jet). The resulting Let’s Bottle Bohemia lacked the thematic tautness and sense of wide-eyed wonder that made the first album so disarming, a less-becoming worldliness taking its place. Once again, Deasy’s titles told the tale: “Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?,” “Faded Beauty Queens,” “You Can’t Fool Old Friends With Limousines,” “The Curse of Comfort.” The tracks seemed overly fussed-over, and SoCal legend Van Dyke Parks’ string arrangements only amplified the sense of artifice. Worst of all, the hooks were missing—and what’s a pop band without hooks?
It’s tough going from belle of the ball to wallflower so quickly, and the lambasting the band took from critics for this misstep led to an inevitable chain of events—a false start, scrapped sessions, sleepless nights. The Thrills returned to Ireland in search of inspiration, eventually realizing that their strengths lay in Deasy’s widescreen vision and the players’ collective ability to bring it to life. Happily, the search also uncovered those misplaced hooks.
Deasy is a storyteller by trade, and he’s drawn to extended, detailed plotting. The cover of So Much for the City, designed like an old movie poster and picturing the band seated in directors’ chairs, a spotlight behind them as if on location for a film, reflects the nature and scope of his ambition. The songs of Teenager are staged, no doubt consciously, like scenes in a coming-of age movie, Deasy’s titles here signaling the narrative movement—“Nothing Changes Around Here,” “I Came All This Way,” “I’m So Sorry,” “No More Empty Words.” The lyrics themselves are elliptical, intercut with fleeting images and scraps of dialogue; Deasy trusts the band’s intricate arrangements and the sharply focused production of the returning Hoffer to complete the picture.
From the first notes of Teenager’s opening track, “The Midnight Choir”—with Daniel Ryan’s ringing banjo chords as emphatic as the mandolin that drives Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running,” followed by a crisply plucked repeating figure and billowing oh-ahhh-ahhhs—it’s clear that The Thrills’ sonic GPS is working again. Like Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band rolling down Highway 9, the five Dubliners are back on their beloved Pacific Coast Highway, powered by Ben Carrigan’s piston-like drumming, while Deasy’s wistful tenor flutters over full-bodied harmonies like a sea-gull over whitecaps.
The Thrills have made another movie with Teenager, and the mise-en-scene is palpable. It’s in Deasy’s vocals, feverish with the need to get all the details in. It’s in the baroque overtones of the 12-string Rickenbacker, redolent, as always, of The Byrds and Beatles; in Ryan’s lilting banjo, Deasy’s Dylanesque harmonica and Kevin Horan’s keyboard flourishes, burnishing the panoramic soundscapes. Those Beach Boys harmonies are everywhere, bathing the songs in nostalgia and deepening the single-minded theme of adolescent innocence receding in the rear-view mirror, a continent and an ocean removed from the album’s Dublin setting.
So it appears that The Thrills are back on course, deftly employing their distinct sound and vision, a little older (though still in their 20s), a little wiser and surely finding resonance in one of Deasy’s refrains: “This could be our year."