Sub Pop, who put the Pop in Sub-standard heavy metal, must be commended for jumping on the N.W.B.S.B.M. bandwagon (that’s New Wave of British Sad Boy Music for those of you out of the loop, or out of Looper records) by releasing the Trembling Blue Stars album Broken by Whispers. This, the third LP by TBS, is essentially (like the others) a solo project masterminded by a former Field Mouse named Robert Wratten.
The Field Mice were cult faves and oft labeled “twee” by the tweenoscenti (but what do you expect when you record for Sarah Records, the official home of twee-pop, and you name your band after those most notoriously twee of mice, known mainly for the way their monocles fall off when sipping too-hot tea from a buttercup?), and twee Wratten may be. But the songs, the songs, the man has the songs: Not a dud, clunker, or mishap detracts from dreamtime on the eiderdown as we overlook the Waterloo sunset.
Fey, coy, yet rich and deep, track after track on Broken by Whispers emits an exacting, well-crafted melodrama. Subtle electro touches only add to the wondrous acoustic guitars, wondrous and breathy declarations of love, and wondrous early morning seaside atmosphere. Those who balk at dreamy-boy nakedness will want to skip the bathos, but such people are called Americans, and they aren’t fit to shine Terry Hall’s moccasins.
There’s a lyric in a song by U.S. post-emo icons Joan of Arc that goes, “Too smart to be a pop star, not smart enough not to be!” These worry lines—where being self-conscious is seen as a virtue and being pretty means sounding like Neil Young when he’s sitting down or Brian Wilson when he’s out cold—have marked the face of yankee indie-pop for so long now that one does wish one would just get over it already. Is there a rule that any heartfelt moment in Amerindie-land not found on dinky-pop labels must be combined somehow with out-of-tune instruments, Mission of Burma dis-chords, impressions of somebody’s Okie grandpappy, or cracking high school voices embarrassed by their own shadow? (Whatever happened to that guy from Unrest?)
But perhaps the Brits are just to the pop-manor born. Morrissey and Neil Tennant were always trembling, blue stars in their heads. That tallyho kind of confidence works wonders when it comes to creating beautiful music for its own sake.