Secret Cities – Strange Hearts

Release Date : 28/03/2011 (Western Vinyl)
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Secret Cities -Strange HeartsNorth Dakota three piece Secret Cities offer a follow-up to their d├ębut, ‘Pink Graffiti’, in the guise of ‘Strange Hearts’ released this month on Western Vinyl. The mood of the record is similar, and as much of a joy as you would expect. Newcomers to Secret Cities will immediately take note of their amazing vocal abilities. The vocal arrangements on their own can be complex and spellbinding, and musicianship is similarly top notch.

Opener ‘Always Friends’ starts with a sunny summer feel, yet is deliciously dirty sounding and lo-fi. The melody and vocals are instantly striking. Musically, throughout the album, there is a lot going on, even if it is sometimes muffled under the [intentional] lack of production. ‘Ice Cream Scene’ starts as a lovely choral piece and builds to something resembling Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest. It’s difficult to know what they’re singing about, but as with all good tunes, who cares?

MJ Parker takes over vocal duties for ‘The Park’, and sounds stunning. Her voice is a little Sandy Shaw and a bit Dusty Springfield. Again, production is almost non-existent, and adds to the beauty of it all. It’s a bit like finding something shiny in the mud. There is more Grizzly Bear influence with ‘Love Crime’, with the vocal arrangement being at odds with the tune strummed beneath it. Again the mood is summery, almost Beach Boys and Beatles in equal measures.

‘Pebbles’ sounds like the closing of a sixties sit-com; ‘You’ve smashed up your drag car’ seems to be the [slightly bizarre] central theme in a song which oozes longing of something unrequited. Beautiful, but I’ve no idea why. Similarly ‘Brief Encounter’ is another sassy piece of sixties pop; rich with percussion and booming chorus as it builds and builds. We’re even treated to a whistling interlude. The mood is more serious here and there is a story to be told.

It’s difficult to know if Secret Cities would benefit from some cleaner production, or if it might lose them their magic. It’s clear that they are astonishingly accomplished musicians, and it’s difficult to imagine how a three piece could make this much sound on so many instruments. ‘Portland’ closes the album and takes a similarly upbeat outlook to its preceding tracks. Again, lots of backing vocals and harmonies. There is a lot to listen to, but it’s an absolute pleasure discovering each level hidden within.

‘Strange Hearts’ is a lovely album with lots to offer repeated listening. I found myself having it repeat a couple of times over without noticing. It’s an album that’s easy to get lost in. The record is sunny and upbeat yet interesting and dirty, all at the same time – as well as sounding old beyond its years.

I’m sure I’ll fathom the drag car love story at some point, but until I do, I’ll take pleasure in the details.

Mike Conyard