Mr. Husband is The Great Frederick Fair. Mr. Husband is sonically Brian Wilson. Mr. Husband is aesthetically Bob Seger. Mr. Husband is a contradiction. Mr. Husband is magnetic. Mr. Husband is the closest thing to Father John Misty Frederick will ever see. And most importantly, Mr. Husband is the brainchild of Mr. Kenny Tompkins, one of the best, most inventive, most interesting musical minds this area has to offer.
His name may seem familiar to you because of his other projects, most notably the electro-pop outfit New God, as well as being part owner of prominent indie label Yellow K Records. But before you think you know what you’re getting into with “Plaid On Plaid,” Mr. Husband’s debut shot of Beach Boys emulation that ups the ante on precisely how much the aforementioned Wilson influenced the aforementioned Tompkins, stop your brain from moving, and just accept that it’s great.
Actually, better than great.
Trading in machines for guitars serves Tompkins well. So much so that these eight songs nearly amount to a miniature, modernized “Pet Sounds” for the local indie set. Single “Riding A Lightning Bolt” has the same distorted, reverbed-out vocals that made his California counterparts legends more than half a century ago. It amounts to a wall of sound accentuated by a sad guitar chord that pops up each time the opening sequence plays through. It doesn’t sound a day older than 1962.
“Cookie Pie,” the other song for which you can find a video, is decidedly brighter than its peer, but no less Wilson-esque for it. Featuring the most prominent pop-guitar/pop-xylophone riff popular music has seen this side of Sufjan Stevens, it harkens back to the days when radio was filled with 2 1/2-minute songs more innocent than a Reading Rainbow marathon. Plus, the up-front acoustic guitar grants the proceedings a level of folk that proves to be a pleasant surprise.
The best surprise of them all comes in the form of “Can’t Sleep,” easily one of the most beautiful songs Frederick has heard in a while. The vocal harmonies are so lush with purity and dynamics, you have to check the label to make sure it doesn’t have Capitol Records on it. For a band with so many layers on so many levels, it’s both refreshing and startling to hear how great things sound when some of those layers are stripped away. It’s beyond satisfying.
Balladry is also a game Tompkins has mastered through the years and “Love Don’t Worry” is a hazy, falsetto-ridden gem that calls upon dreams of the West Coast both lyrically (“Don’t you worry/ Don’t you cry” doesn’t not make you think of “Don’t Worry Baby,” perhaps the best Beach Boys song ever) and musically (check that woodblock and those buried guitars to hear exactly what that means). It’s also the longest track here, which makes the six-string noodling throughout the chorus feel more updated than it should.
“Gone Forever” keeps the slow success in tact, adding a touch of sadness that reiterates Tompkins’s versatility. “You can say you won, but you know you lost/ You’re like second-place trophies in a paper box/ Just sitting in a basement where it’s always cold and dark,” the singer offers and holy cow does it resonate. Part of Brian Wilson’s brilliance was the way he played in the space between sun and rain, and here, his disciple masters that trick wonderfully.
Equally as memorable is “Shake That Dream,” which is straight out of the Wilson family playbook with its layered harmonies and unabashed build. Throw in the phrase, “I got it bad,” the repetition of the hook and a drum pattern that almost single-handedly invented surf rock, and you have a classic, radio-ready single written 50 years too late. That’s OK, though, considering how timeless the moving parts are.
Actually, “timeless” is not a word to be used lightly. Call him what you want. Dismiss it as gimmickry or comedy. Roll your eyes at a title like “Plaid On Plaid.” But no matter what, just know that if you do, you’re missing out on the joy of adolescence, the maturity of a poet, and the sheer fun of a ride on which lesser musicians could never even find a seat. It’s unapologetic. It’s glorious. It’s undeniable. It’s Kenny Tompkins.
And it’s Mr. Husband to you.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***