Named for the generously proportioned feline occupying the tray card of How I Learned to Stop Worrying, Philadelphia’s Bigger Lovers hopscotch all over the landscape of pop music on their delightful debut. Dunked in enough reverb for a heavenly Phil Spector choir (and occasionally accompanied by smatterings of studio applause and odd effects), the quartet touches on punky power, British Invasion directness, Velvet Crush charm, Beach Boy majesty, post-Parsons country and an inkling of what might have resulted from Todd Rundgren producing the Left Banke. Singer/bassist Scott Jefferson and singer/guitarist Bret Tobias write mildly sentimental, witty (occasionally self-effacing) lyrics and catchy tunes, and present them here in such variety as to defy easy categorization. “I’m Here” and “Forever Is Not So Long” and the thickly woven “Threadbare” are easy standouts. Energy suits these Lovers; the languorous numbers are harder to hook.
Honey in the Hive is sharper sounding and more focused on sweetly rocking pop, with no country element, less echo and fewer obvious stylistic enthusiasms. Letting the pendulum swing only between brisk and mid-tempo, enthusiastic and calm, producer Thom Monahan (a onetime member of Monsterland and a longtime associate of the Pernice Brothers) plays up the band’s strengths, especially drummer Patrick Berkery’s effective aggression. He presses the driving “Half Richard’s” along and gets the album off to a strong start; “Bought Your Ghost” layers on the voices and guitars to stirring effect; “What Would It Take?” unleashes a gorgeous rush in the descending chorus; the boppy “A Simple ‘How Are You?'” is as lovely as it is sappy. The slower songs, while unfailingly pleasant, don’t make as strong an impression; that said, the swirling, wafting “Minivan Blues” is one that does.
The third album, a bit subtler and more intricate than the first two, rewards repeated listenings with strong, original hooks and thoughtful, engaging lyrics. (The cover image, of a praying mantis, threatens sexual fatalism of the literally fatal sort, a predatory tone which the album, thankfully, doesn’t follow.) With glances at both the Raspberries and Cheap Trick, “You (You You)” gets This Affair off to an enthusiastic, harmonically charged start. But the next track, “I Resign,” dampens the spirits, in lyric and sound, by ratcheting down the pop brio. The sequencing bounces back and forth, from the raw clenched-jaw bitterness of “Blowtorch” to the Teenage Fanclubby sweetness of “Ninja Suit” and the slide-driven bounce of “Slice of Life.” Dandy as each one is on its own (and don’t miss the winsome “Peel It Away” a little later on), they just don’t fit together right; what’s more, the songs don’t convey much about the album’s explicitly announced concept. This Affair concludes with an apt Only Ones cover about romantic triangulation (“You’ve Got to Pay”) and a slow, wry seasonal tearjerker, “For Christ’s Sake.” Hit shuffle and enjoy.