Album Review: Smallpools, ‘Lovetap’
Like most things that seem easy until you actually try doing them yourself, writing a great pop song is deceptively tricky. There's a formula to it, sure, but there's an art to coloring inside those lines, and an economy to that style of songwriting that a lot of people don't understand. The brilliant Irish songwriter Paul Brady once observed that it's a lot tougher to say everything you have to say in three minutes than it is to just natter on for verse after verse, and that's a point well taken — and one that, whether they know it or not, Smallpools exemplify on their full-length debut, Lovetap.
This is a record that's been wending its way through the pipeline for quite some time now. Even by 21st century major-label standards, Lovetap has endured a prolonged gestation process: The band's debut single, "Dreaming," arrived in May of 2013, followed by a self-titled EP a couple of months later and a slow drip of singles during 2014. Those tracks are all collected here, adding up to a spumoni scoop of a record that lumps the six previously released cuts in with eight new songs — a source of annoyance to fans who bought that earlier material, but fortunately not a problem in terms of how Lovetap hangs together as a listening experience.
Again, this is trickier than it looks. Smallpools' stock in trade is the sort of buzzy, soaring electro-pop that tends to sound deliriously addictive upon first listen, but wears out its welcome quickly, after the listener gorges on a few too many brightly produced, high-pitched singalong choruses and winds up with the music equivalent of a post-sugar rush headache. They're a young band, and Lovetap is an admittedly uneven album that probably could have benefited from a svelter track listing, but even if it occasionally threatens to clatter off the rails or drift into tedium, it still offers an impressive amount of replay value in the end.
What ultimately saves Lovetap isn't any one thing, but more of a fortuitous balancing act that never lets the songs topple over completely. There are a handful of lyrically mundane tracks, but they're rescued by sharp arrangements or interesting production; there are some less inspired production choices, but they're shored up by clever lyrics or nifty musical twists; there are a few musically mundane songs, but ... well, you get the idea. The album doesn't always fire on all cylinders, but neither does it experience complete engine failure.
During those moments when it does hit the musical trifecta, Lovetap offers heaping helpings of pure pop pleasure: the cleverly catchy "Over & Over," the anthemic "Killer Whales," the punchy quirk of "Street Fight" and "Karaoke." And while much of the record ploughs similar ground, its 14-track expanse does demonstrate its worth by allowing room for a few intriguing experiments, including the angular world music pogo-pop of "9 to 5" and the palate-cleansing, quasi-ambient closing instrumental, "(Submarine)."
It all adds up to the best kind of debut, really — one that makes a persuasive argument for its artist without setting the bar unreasonably high for a follow-up. Consider Lovetap one to grow on...and one you can safely enjoy the heck out of while imagining the places these kids could go in a few albums' time.