After the dissolution of Antenna, Jake Smith took over the bass job in the Indianapolis wing of the Vulgar Boatmen; the elemental intensity of that group’s frugal folk-pop strongly informs the Mysteries of Life, the delightful Bloomington group he and cymbal-shy wife Freda Love Smith (ex-Blake Babies and Antenna) unveiled in 1995. But, to a lesser degree, so does the unbound electrification of Hideout-era Antenna, and those two poles furnish Keep a Secret with stylistic tension and dynamic variety. “Hesitate” keeps extraneous sounds out, letting Geraldine Haas’ cello, bass and Love’s snare balance Smith’s sweet voice (with backing vocals by Boatmen leader Dale Lawrence) and plucky guitar figures; “Alibi,” a deliciously pretty song of guilt and honesty he loaned Velo-Deluxe for Superelastic, begins with a similar skeletal arrangement and then erupts in feedback squeals and surging guitar strums. “Feel My Way” accents the swinging Stealers Wheel honeysnap with angry fuzz chords; “I Guess I’m in Luck” adopts a jaunty calypso bounce and rides it with the merriment of a Jonathan Richman confection. Whether the Mysteries of Life is tamping down the ferocity or amping up the gentleness, Keep a Secret is neither obvious nor dull — and frequently wonderful. (In a bit of post-LP circle completion, ex-Antenna guitarist Vess Ruhtenberg became the Mysteries of Life bassist, replacing the album’s Tina Barbieri.)
While holding to their major-label deal and adjusting the lineup this way and that, Mysteries of Life sketched out their next album’s worth of music on two EPs released six months apart by the leading Indianapolis indie. From the nifty guitar figure that opens the disarmingly jaunty farewell of “Wish You Well,” Focus on the Background — a six-song EP made by a core group of Smith, Love and Velo-Deluxe vet Kenny Childers on bass with Haas, Lawrence, Ruhtenberg, Barbieri and percussionist LonPaul Ellrich — is an unassuming charmer. That a slow, skeletal cover of “I’m Into Something Good” (the Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that was a hit for Herman’s Hermits) and a brisk acoustic swing through Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody” easily blend in with the originals (one of them, “Shiver,” by Childers) here indicates how clear and strong the band’s quiet voice is.
A couple of the songs on the informal and acoustic Anonymous Tip (another six tunes, including a cover of Paul Weller’s “But I’m Different Now,” made by the same core trio with most of the same guests and a spot of Lisa Germano violin) are slight or plain, which only underscores the pungency of “Let It Slip” and “I Need to Know Where I Stand.” Both hit their emotional marks, but beg more determined accompaniment to fully convey the lyrics’ beseeching urgency.
Returning to RCA, working with longtime producer Paul Mahern and Brad Wood, Mysteries of Life made Come Clean, an economical, precise, understated and eloquent masterwork of unadorned American beauty. From the haunted title track and a wonderful remake of “Let It Slip” — with all the colors filled in — to a lonely, solemn cover of O.V. Wright’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” that channels stirring soul power through the delicate folk-pop voice of a white Midwesterner, the album is a marvel. “Tell Me,” “Fingerprints,” “Kiss Me Goodnight,” “Your Face Betrays You,” “I Forgot to Say Goodbye” — one melodic song after another deftly outlines an emotional moment of regret, desire or disappointment and leaves an echo to ponder once it’s done. Extraordinary.
Safely returned to the real world of Indiana indie rock, the Mysteries — by now counting Smith’s former employer Lawrence as a full member — came through with another gorgeous testament to truth, honesty, purity and clarity in the guise of briskly played guitar pop. Distant Relative upholds all of the band’s values, perhaps with a bit less self-consciousness (or was that major-label intervention?) but with a renewed sense of purpose. Smith’s songs continue in the intimately reflective vein (“When I Let My Guard Down,” “3 Things at Once,” “Back and Forth”), but the centerpiece is “Boy-Girl-Boy-Girl,” a rhythmically choppy dissection of, well, the mysteries of life. (There’s also a discombobulating bonus track consisting of found voices and odd sounds.) As they’ve done on previous records, the group connects itself to some distant heritage by quoting “Rock and Roll Will Stand,” Jonathan Richman-style, in “Native Tongue.” Ultimately, it’s the sound of the records as much as their content that conveys what Smith and company are getting at, and therein lies the fineness of art.
Five years later, the group hit a creative pinnacle with Beginning to Move, their strongest and most consistently winning album. Wrapped around a surprising Freda vocal (“Is This What I’ve Been Waiting For?”), Jake’s songs paint graceful, alluring and powerfully moving images of life and love. Arrangements that include viola (long a crucial element to the Vulgar Boatmen as well) are punctuated by Freda’s spot-on drumming; her economical approach says everything that it needs to. Highlights: the pulsing title track, “Stop Thinking,” “One False Move,” “Couldn’t Do,” the nearly ethereal “Listen to My Voice” and the Buddy Holly-ish “On Second Thought.”
After another long hiatus, during which the Smiths pursued academia, cooking and raising children — all of it detailed in Freda’s wonderful 2015 cookbook-cum-memoir Red Velvet Underground — the Mysteries returned to life with the six-song Bad Advice. Horns and piano in spots punch up the duo’s own winning charms and unabashedly romantic lyrics (“I Like You,” “Rely on You,” “Take You Up”). In contrast to the anxious, honesty-(self-)doubting of the band’s early work, the devotion here is positively heartwarming. Jake’s singing, guitar-playing and songwriting are familiarly winning, but Freda’s drumming is an equally strong presence in the uplifting “Coat of Arms” and the swinging “This Evening.” Great stuff.