“Nothing about the music’s a joke. It’s all earnest and I think it’s there for you if you want to receive it earnestly.”
So said Kenny Tompkins on an episode of “Frederick One Take” that featured his band, Mr. Husband. He was asked if his songs were supposed to be taken in jest because … well, have you seen him in that Mr. Husband get-up?! Transforming into a character all its own, complete with jean jacket, all-American headband and a mane of hair that would make Derek Smalls blush, the Mr. Husband persona is Frederick’s version of Father John Misty. Sure, the whole thing might just be Tompkins doing a bit, but none of that should demean the quality of the music.
Or, in other words, for as unserious as the guy might appear to be, the music itself is very seriously good.
That continues with his band’s latest eight—song effort, “Silvertone.” Decidedly more stripped down than their debut, “Plaid On Plaid,” this set presents the trio, ironically, in a more realistic light. Here, lush effects that are typically associated with Tompkins’ Brian Wilson-esque vocals are toned down, and the end product feels like it was borne out of a more raw approach. Even Chris Morris’s drums feel more authentic, the presence of today’s studio trickery absent from his exceptionally solid playing. In truth, this effort amounts to the moment the real Mr. Husband stands up.
And it works. Opener “Dream Driver” harks back to the days when college radio rock was less mainstream and more genuine, effects-less drums throwing the party and a good, old-fashioned “one, two, one, two, three, four” announcing the rest of the band. Keeping up with the driving pace that Morris sets, it’s a simple song, relying heavily on momentum largely created by Jason Reeder’s persistent bass. Throw in a mildly surprising Tompkins guitar solo, and you have just enough of a left turn to make you think that the rest of the album is going to be a bit more exciting than previously thought.
The highest level of intrigue comes when Tompkins trades in his falsetto-laden vocal approach for something more soulful. Case in point is “Yellow,” which features perhaps the most memorable moment Mr. Husband himself offers on the mic as the chorus winds down. The music breaking, Tompkins is left by himself to go for it. He delivers in a way we’ve rarely heard before, making him appear more human than ever as he demands something as simple as “I want to see it now.” Upbeat and sunny, there’s no reason it shouldn’t appear on a playlist alongside bands like Real Estate and Beach Fossils.
Not everything is clear skies, however. “Living In Dreams,” while infectious and valuable, perhaps recalls too much of “Plaid On Plaid,” echoing the Husband sound in ways that don’t move the template forward enough. Ditto for “Laying Low,” which gains points for a guitar line that nearly mimics the 1965 hit “A Groovy Kind Of Love,” but ultimately fades into relative obscurity when you consider its surrounding universe.
Fear not, though, because Tompkins saves the best for last. The closing trio of “Brainheart,” “Holy Kaleidoscope” and “A Night Like Today” is the strongest string of songs this band has produced to date. “Brainheart” is both heartbreaking and depressive in the same brilliant ways that the songwriter’s brilliant hero so brilliantly pulled it off half a century ago. Just listen to the first few lines: “I’ve been waking up/Putting on my shoes/I’ve been doing all the things/I’m supposed to do.” It works because of the inherent sadness Tompkins effortlessly displays in his voice, undoubtedly making at least a few Beach Boys proud.
“Holy Kaleidoscope” follows that up with a shot of tropic indie pop that would fit in just as well at Coachella as it would at a 1965 high school prom. “Lush” is a word too often used when describing the Mr. Husband oeuvre, but there isn’t really a better word to cite while listening to the backing harmonies giving that toe-tapping groove a soft place to land. Morris’s verse-bridging fills are a sweet treat, too, on top of such top-shelf candy store couture.
And then there’s “A Night Like Today.” The rawest of them all, the album closer dismantles the layers synonymous with a Mr. Husband release and leaves room for little more than Tompkins and his acoustic guitar, marking the distinct line where Mr. Husband ends and Kenny Tompkins begins. Taking his voice down a register grants the song a levity unheard elsewhere, and when he bleeds the line “I could take you in my arms and make everything OK, and I’d love you on a night just like today,” your body would be forgiven if a swarm of goosebumps waged war against it.
Thus proving, once again, that Mr. Husband is far from a joke, and suggesting that “Silvertone,” despite its name, is probably worth more than its weight in gold.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***