[SHOW-TUNE TWEE] New Century Schoolbook is an orchestral pop quintet composed of what I suspect are ex-drama students. They are literary and enamored of the twee-er edges of pop, and they express talents for orchestral instrumentation and coy charm. That they embody those adjectives without becoming a carbon copy of the Decemberists is an impressive feat. Whereas Mr. Meloy and company borrow from Dickens and Jethro Tull, New Century Schoolbook is more apt to name-drop Anne of Green Gables and politely ape the works of Alan Menken. Small distinctions, but important when writ large.
On this self-titled album (the group’s first full-length release, after last year’s The Happy Detective EP), New Century Schoolbook shows itself to be more in line with the jaunty ethos of American show tunes than with any other strain of modern pop. There is a hint of the Unicorns’ manic chirping on “The Cognitive Revolution” and an occasional diversion into a John Darnielle-ish talk-sing, but New Century Schoolbook’s foundational supports are, persistently, a nervous piano, a squeaky-clean guitar and frequent embellishment via flute. Placed on top of these instruments are lyrics that favor the rhyming couplet and the outlandish narrative.
It’s in its more jokey moments that New Century Schoolbook falters. When frontman Johnny Askew tries to hang lines like “Laughing as I turn my back/ You’re acting like I sold you crack” on the band’s spare instrumentation, the whole structure totters.
But there is a true and still-developing aesthetic at the heart of New Century Schoolbook’s music, and it shines through in moments when the group uses its minimal instruments to maximum effect.
“Anne of Green Gables” (told you!) features the couplet, “This livery is full of stables/ Cry when you read Anne of Green Gables/
Well don’t get cute with me.” It’s a charming, somewhat nonsensical
line that starts with a joke and skitters sideways to reach an actual
sentiment. Cloaked in some chirpy, Wurlitzer-based hooks, we arrive at
precisely what New Century Schoolbook does best.
SEE IT: New Century Schoolbook plays the Ella Street Lounge on Sunday, May 15. 9 pm. $6. 21+.