Acoustic rock is often a dubious territory. It’s a fluid gray area encompassing everything from bright and dirty folk melodies harking back to Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel to chukka-chukka punk crossovers into kinder/gentler land. In any case, you generally want Dreadnought rockers to be doing it as a “fuck this electric shit” statement rather than as an avenue to squish saccharine lullabies about girls into a more condensed commodity.
The Trolleyvox are primarily an acoustic band. This doesn’t mean the Philadelphia popsters don’t pepper The Karaoke Meltdowns with some slashing electric lines, but the core of The Trolleyvox’s music is Andrew Chalfen’s dexterous acoustic arpeggios and Beth Filla’s cryptic vocals. Chalfen manages to cram as much thick sound into a single tone as seems sonically possible. The result is a fat, vibrant ring that twangs like rubber and settles into the eardrums like reverberating cotton candy. The twelve-string tones give the band’s pop a much heavier and meaty feel, reminiscent of the ringing harmonies of The Byrds. Mix in the vibrant imagery of vocalist Beth Filla’s wordplay and you have a potent mix of jangle and power pop that often invokes R.E.M.
Filla is the second piece of the puzzle. Just the right mixture of bubblegum, sexy, and brooding, she can sustain angelic choruses and turn on a dime right down to breathy sensuality. Sweeping jangle pop anthems like “I Know That You’re High” shows her at her oscillating best, buffeting soaring refrains with hopscotch verses. She has a quirky Michael Stipe side for words that invoke irresistible visuals, spinning lines about artichoke hearts, pelicans, and helium.
The Karaoke Meltdowns is a chiseled framework of sharp little radio burners, averaging around the comfortable three minute mark. Thankfully, it’s a diverse bubble of bright colors, fluid motion, and furry sound. “Just You Wait” is a spiteful little tirade against contemporary fatcats, oil-mongers, and bombs-for-progress talking heads. The brightness of the song suddenly is hammered by a hailstorm of noise during the coda as Filla sings ‘end’ with golden exasperation. “A Summer Without You” casually lifts the escalator riff from Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy” and delivers one of the most sanguine tracks on the album. Airy snare drum pumps its magazine into the heart of the echoing guitar harmonics and Beth Filla’s sultry alto. Other tracks are downright pretty, like the sweeping “Preamble” and the dusty “Deep Blue Central.” The latter plays like a Charles Wysocki painting with its horse-drawn percussion and picturesque acoustics.
A couple of tracks miss, like the bland “Joyride.” Interestingly enough it’s the only track that Filla doesn’t lend lead vocals to, and stinks with stale mid-’90s mainstream “alternative” of Matchbox Twenty or Goo Goo Dolls. It doesn’t fit, and is ultimately a crow among the songbirds.
The Karaoke Meltowns comes to a punchy climax on “Whisper Down the Lane.” Kicking off with the acoustic progression from the opening “Preamble,” it rides across a thunderous roller coaster of wild percussion and a flighty chorus. Hearing Filla sing ‘sex up the Christ’ tugs up the corners of the mouth in a sly grin before the track spirals out in a frenetic orgy of tremolo. By the time the closing “Pale Star and Line” speaks its final piece over the slumbering sunset, The Trolleyvox has done its work. The band has delivered a juicy pop album with enough to satisfy even the most jaded. Like me.