When I first heard Papas Fritas’ self-titled debut, I imagined the trio were playing their cute little pop songs on tiny toy instruments. The album had an appealing, sugarcoated residue of unsullied innocence, with lyrics that either rang out like pep-rally battle cries for lovelorn teens (“Girls and boys should be as one!”) or snuck in a teaspoon of strong medicine with the sugar, as on the euphoric say-yes-to-drugs “Holiday.” There was nothing extraneous in the writing or production, which was suitably no-budget, and the melodies were craftily constructed—the handiwork of Talmudic pop scholars. You felt like you were entering a secret society of suburban nerds who wore pocket protectors and collected Jonathan Richman records.
Papas Fritas have a touch of Peter Pan Syndrome in them; at times, these Tufts grads can sound like adolescents who stole the keys to big brother’s basement studio. Their second album, Helioself, jacked up the production value a touch and sidestepped tender fragility in favor of up-with-people effluvia that didn’t stick to the ribs as effectively. Following up a modest, no-budget debut with a loud pop record sent mixed signals, as if Papas Fritas couldn’t reconcile their love of quiescent bedroom musings with cheap powerchord kicks. Instead of trying to split the difference, the band ditches both approaches on their new Buildings and Grounds, a streamlined stab at brainy MOR pop.
Like Helioself, Buildings and Grounds sounds produced in a real studio, and the lyrics go for the straight-on emotional sucker punch, as opposed to the sneaky feints on the band’s first two albums. But it’s no less clever, and more subversively droll. The melodies are three-chord happy faces, with zippy guitars straight outta Lidsville, and Tony Goddess’s and Shivika Asthana’s affectless voices rising over the playful din like helium. But like those canny Swedes the Cardigans, Papas Fritas know how to fold sharp satire and self-mockery into their gooey marshmallow confections. Check the rhymes: Riding a Gary Glitter sports arena thump, Goddess sings a sunny ode to scientific progress in “Vertical Lives” that sounds like a public service announcement for the Biosphere. Other tracks are committed to Hallmark banalities and so blithely guileless that it doesn’t matter.
Mostly, though, Buildings and Grounds is made of sterner stuff. The two principal vocalists and songwriters engage in a seductive game of cat and mouse, with Goddess playing the sweaty-palmed obsessive to Asthana’s coolly composed drama queen. On tracks like “Way You Walk,” the pair bat around the rotting husk of a broken relationship like a badminton birdie. Goddess is an emotional car wreck on “What Am I Supposed to Do,” pounding out two minor guitar chords like shock therapy. Meanwhile, Asthana evokes Stevie Nicks on the smooth-as-glass “Far From an Answer,” offering up pop mysticism as a cure for a tattered heart.
In fact, much of Buildings and Grounds has a distinct Fleetwood Mac flavor, albeit more Tango in the Night than Rumours. There’s nothing astringent or jagged, no nastiness to disrupt the unruffled surface of the pristine pond of sound. Sometimes that velvet-glove attack can grate, as on the diabetic’s nightmares “Questions” and “Another Day.” Still, nerds that can write this well can be forgiven the occasional wimpout.