1900s – Return of the Century

January 01, 1970





The 1900s take a step forward here by taking a step back from their debut’s baroque
take on retro-pop. Loosely based around the mysterious disappearance of Christina “Licorice” McKechnie of
the Incredible String Band, who quit music and vanished from the public eye
shortly after joining – and then possibly fleeing – the Church of Scientology, Return of the Century deals with what
the band calls a lot strange issues: Freewill, cult compounds and the loss of
self, among others (spiritual displacement was a theme on the band’s 2007 Cold & Kind debut, too). But you’ll
be so charmed by the band’s summer melodies and three-part harmonies,
intriguing instrument combinations and pristine production that the narrative
fare will seem of little import by comparison.


On their debut, the 1900s plied the same shimmering pop
waters as Belle & Sebastian, navigating between Phil Spector textures and B&S’s
twee inclinations. But in toning down some of the more orchestral elements of
their debut here, the band has tightened their sound (none of these 11 tracks
reach 4 minutes) and dialed up the pop to, at times, sublime levels.  The main beneficiary is Jeanine O’Toole, whose
Beth Orton-like voice graces some of the album’s best pop cuts: “Lay A Ghost,”
whose heart-racing pulse weaves keys, strings and three-part harmonies into
Camera Obscura-like kiss-off bliss; the wistful “Tucson,” where acoustic and
electric guitars coil around one another – recalling Orton’s Trailer Park — while Donovan sings “you
only saw me naked once” and breaks your heart; and “Bmore,” where the harmonies
reaches near hymnal grace. Edward Anderson, who does a pretty good Stuart
Murdoch whether he means to or not, has his moments, too, firing the album’s
most rocking track, “Zerkalo,” with guitar parts that recall the best moments
of the Feelies, and disc-opener “Amulet,” which establishes the record’s 60s
London-meets-70s California pop aesthetic. Benjamin Balcom’s arranging adds smile-inducing
surprise to nearly every cut, and the production plays an essential role, too.


Where other retro-pop bands rely on Wall of Sound technique
to smothering, crutch-like levels, the 1900s employ production aesthetics more
common to Chicago studio fixtures like Jim O’Rourke and John McEntire – every
keyboard ping, guitar line and voice has breathing room to state its case. It
adds up, somehow, to the same lush summer pop feel, which points to the
strength of the songwriting and melodies. “Overreactin’,” with its metronomic
Disco beat, is just about the only uninspired moment on the disc — but what
beauty isn’t enhanced by a single flaw?


Ghost” “Bmore” BY JOHN SCHACHT



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