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Unlike any number of pop musicians who take refuge in formalism, the Brakes sound like they know all about the way the world can pass you by when you’re looking for a love to call your own. Recorded live last year in New York and back home in Philadelphia, Tale of Two Cities gets structural with twin-guitar breaks, elegant soft-shoe piano, and funk rhythms that are jumpy and a little bookish. It’s a tight, controlled, expert pop record that sounds suspiciously even-handed, as if the quintet’s neuroses have been conquered all too successfully. The fancy chord changes and double-time passages convey what the arch lyrics don’t, as chief songwriter Zach Djanikian croons soulfully about women he notices “standing in a hurry” in supermarket lines, along with other big-city perils.
“Supermarket” and “Big Money” make a case for these guys as harbingers of newfangled post-rock that recalls the relaxed post-boogie of such ’70s bands relics as Little Feat and Orleans—you could imagine them covering “Easy to Slip” or “Still the One” with a straight face. “Big Money” rhymes death march with good heart and sports guitars that evoke the Allman Brothers and Big Star. “Boat Trip” works variations on country-rock, while the title track is a modified soul ballad in 6/8 that tells the sad tale of a beggar who was “at one time a maker of fine automobiles.” The Brakes’ ecstasy seems as qualified as their optimism seems earned, so Two Cities hangs onto its bag of tricks for dear life, which means the songwriting fades halfway through even as the level of musical invention remains high. It’s the blessed details that count here: Every droll slide-guitar lick, piano fill, and power-packed coda edges the Brakes closer to the kind of elusive, worldly bliss that makes even formalism alluring.