As musical projects go, St. Louis-based Middle Class Fashion falls into the category of what is attainable by shuffling the deck, seeking out new angles and placing trust in the musicians with whom you are working.
On January 14, the self-described "weird piano group," released their début full-length album, Girl Talk, on Blip! Blap! Records.
In 201o, singer/pianist Jenn Malzone decided she needed a new creative outlet for her work. As a member of two other St. Louis bands Malzone said she formed yet another "to create an avenue for my songs that didn't seem to fit as well with the other bands." Tapping Brad Vaughn from her baroque pop project Paper Dolls to switch from bass guitar to drums and bassist Brian McClelland from the indie pop Tight Pants Syndrome, Malzone found a chemistry that allowed her to quickly craft ideas and realize results in a short amount of time. The group released a self-titled EP, but continued over the next year to work at the project. "With Brad and Brian's aptitude and enthusiasm for learning and developing new material we were able to speed up the creative process in a way we weren't able to in the other bands -- basically, to write a song on Monday, learn it on Wednesday and play it in front of an audience on Friday," explained Malzone.
The tightly crafted indie pop songs on Girl Talk contain plenty of strong hooks and melodies to reel in the listener. The vocal harmonies add a lightness while the minor keys stand the pop vernacular on its ear as classical undertones peek through to fill in the edges. Malzone's piano playing conjures a Broadway style flair for the dramatic that adds depth and richness to what might otherwise come off as bubblegum pop.
Conversely, the tight arrangements keep the album's running time to scant 37 minutes. The group achieves this as twelve of the fourteen songs clock in at less than three minutes. In contrast, many albums of the past 20 years with that same number of songs run close to double that total running time.
Further, the production does not overwhelm the ears with a busy sonic atmosphere. While far from sparse open sound landscapes, the group shied away from the typical "Wall of Sound" tribute. The simplicity of the main trio is supplemented at times by overdubs of strings, guitar and a casiotone keyboard.
Malzone possesses a breathy Liz Phair style vocal delivery that carries an appropriate amount of snark, which works well with the band's blend of pop and rock. While her vocal range is nothing special, the timing of her singing is spot on. Plus, the attitude in her voice resonates and her smart ass lyrical style owes much to singer Jenny Lewis.
McClelland's fuzzed-out bass lines and Vaughn's roaring drums on the opening bars of "Powder Blue" easily bring to mind Ben Folds Five though without some of the wry lyrical wit and undeniable piano chops Folds possesses. Across many of the other songs on the album, other obvious comparisons surface for the listener: Regina Spektor, Tegan & Sara and the band of the aforementioned Lewis, Rilo Kiley, come to mind.
Lyrically, Malzone writes in a poetic journal style that reveals a love life filled with stupid, self-absorbed men that don't understand the complexities of the female emotional condition. "In your nice neat life, there's me outside, I can't see clear," she sings in the opener "Lightning Bugs." On "My Attack", however, she becomes more blunt - "I don't think I like you anymore like that./Starting today when I see you I will look away /Now, every time I see you I will look away/take that."
The sentiment continues on "Fun Whoa" where Malzone lampoons a love relationship with a fellow hipster musician that is ending. Written from the perspective of one of the participants this is not the jilted lovers' track. The narrator, resigned to the fact the relationship is over, recaps to her former lover in a break up tone of "well duh." She sings the stinging assessment, "You only liked me for my hooks/I only liked you for your albums and books/Your daydream record was released/I much prefer you on the CD sleeve." Clearly, Malzone's protagonists are still dealing with young, immature boys still looking for that one experienced man to spend the rest of their life with.
"Jamie" begins with a signature blended vocal right out of the Folds songbook. The harmonies between McClellan and Malzone shine brightest here as the two share lead vocals on the only co-written track on the album. Drummer Vaughn even adds a rare guitar solo for the album that strangely sounds reminiscent of a Steve Hackett solo culled from an early Genesis record -- I have the solo in "The Musical Box" specifically in mind. Before you dismiss the comparison give a listen to the dramatic progressive rock during the early period before Peter Gabriel left the band.
Recorded by Jimi Gunn at Brewhouse Studios, the album from beginning to end is a labor of love crafted from the Gateway City. While Malzone is responsible for the bulk of the music here, McClelland took on the production and mixing roles, oversaw the overdubs as well as created the album art. The group of people behind the album are just as tight-knit as the songs contained herein.
The band took McClelland's album artwork up a notch for a video shoot for the LISTEN video series produced by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Utilizing a local St. Louis hair salon, Tami Scott Studio, as the backdrop, the band recorded a live performance of non-album track "Stuck."
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to my stylist for a cut and a splash of color. What?! Can't writers look good for their readers?