BY FRED MILLS
Though compared early on to acclaimed baroque indie popsters Apples In Stereo, avant-popsters Of Montreal as well as indie-popsters The Shins, Athens-based King Of Prussia have matured into a free-standing, free-flying collective of, er, popsters that can proudly claim their own unique patch of turf. That’s a whole lotta pop to anticipate, but fear not, because it largely justified by songwriter/guitarist/singer Brandon Hanick’s development as a songwriter, as he’s learned to incorporate his deep influences—which range from the elemental, harmony-rich simplicity of early Beach Boys/Beatles and the earthier tones of the Lovin’ Spoonful to the complex subversiveness of Lou Reed and his erstwhile VU foil John Cale—into a studiously-wrought and immaculately-rendered craftsmanship. And as good as 2008 debut Save the Scene and 2012’s Transmissions from the Grand Strand were, this new offering boasts so much in the way of nuance and emotional release that it sounds like it was created by an entirely different band.
In a very pragmatic way, it was. Hanick split his time between Barcelona and Athens, additionally upping the transcontinental ante by doing some recording in Bordeaux. This country-hopping meant that the sessions were handled by a small army of friends (two notable guests: Mike Mills and Fred Schneider), who turned up to lend a hand as Hanick’s inspiration struck, nevermind the locale he happened to be in at the time. It’s to Hanick’s credit as a multi-tasking leader and to the musicians’ credit as nimble players that the resulting double album is tightly focused rather than the sprawling chaos it could have been.
The first half (or first album, if you want to think of this as a twin release) Zonian Girls kicks off with a series of shimmery pop statements—the perky, piano-powered “Actuary,” the lush ‘n’ twangy “The Dean & The Photographer” (think Wilco, or possibly Wilco offshoot The Autumn Defense), and the pumping, horn-punctuated power pop of “Your Work is Magic.” From there the band celebrates the giddiness of young romance, steering through variations and elaborations upon the “P” word (the string arrangement and dreamy female backing vocals in “I’ll Dance With You” makes for a sublime baroque pop waltz), eventually winding up at “Old Masks,” a part-sound collage and part-spoken word tribute to Athens that serves as a mid-album interlude. At that point the mood downshifts momentarily, as second half And The Echoes That Surround Us All commences via the acoustic guitar/piano “From the Vine.” Hints of that same young romance having given way to disillusionment surface, and it’s up to the music to provide salve for wounds: the buoyancy of “A Parting, A Loss,” with its Phil Spector-like flourishes; the reassuring warmth of “Holy Coast,” which suggests Lloyd Cole reworking “Sweet Jane”; the crashing, dissonant, almost metal-esque “I Won’t Cry.” Closing track “Chain Smokin’ Woman” serves as an effective coda to the record—there’s about a 20-second pause between it and the preceding track before it fades into earshot—that sends things off in a blaze of dissonant electric blues.
Ultimately, ZG…ATETSUA charts the evolution of a relationship, or perhaps works as a meditation upon the ups, downs and in betweens of relationships (recall that one song is titled “I’ll Dance With You”; later, a track is named simply “Divorce”), with all the complications and conundrums therein. It’s a song cycle of profound ambition and remarkably clear-eyed execution, one that pays multiple dividends with each successive spin.
DOWNLOAD: “Your Work Is Magic,” “I’ll Dance With You,” “Holy Coast”