They must be offering accelerated courses in indie-pop adorability at Ivy League schools — how else to explain the seeming ease with which this trio, formed at Tufts University in Massachusetts in ’93, was ready for the close-up of its wonderful self-produced debut album inside of two years?
Besides the exquisite title track, the preliminary Passion Play EP is nearly a waste: its three long non-LP songs are a watery Jonathan Richman indulgence (“Means”), the junk-rock nonsense of “Radio Days” and the catchy but minor “Howl.” But that was the end of the impertinence.
On Papas Fritas, the group sounds as fresh and youthful as an after-school milk commercial — notwithstanding guitarist/pianist Tony Goddess’ occasional tendency to affect a lazy J Mascis/pothead creak in his singing — and turns extraordinarily fetching pop concoctions like “Lame to Be,” “TV Movies,” “Possibilities” and “Smash This World” into disarmingly sophisticated and diverse small-scale charmers with abundant skill and no evidence of effort. Crossing a strong aroma of ’60s time- capsule folk-rock (imparted by acoustic guitar, simple piano and simple harmony-vocal arrangements, plus a little chamber quartet action on “Passion Play”) with a post- modern sense of onrushing fuzz-guitar whimsy, Papas Fritas come off on its self-titled album like a crisp and focused Beat Happening on one hand and a Brian Wilson-obsessed Modern Lovers on the other. Drummer Shivika Asthana provides a delightful vocal foil for Goddess; if they’re not quite Sonny and Cher for the practice-amp set, Papas Fritas is still a reason to believe in the value of higher education.
Helioself brings Papas Fritas out to frolic in a calm, dewy clearing ringed by XTC, the White Album Beatles, 10cc, Stackridge and others. It flows like a well- programmed jukebox: unified by a rustic disposition, the album’s stylistic diversity feels comfortably natural, the songs instantly familiar without being selfconscious or specifically derivative. Rinkydink spinet nostalgia caroms comfortably into angular guitar rock on “Captain of the City”; “Live by the Water” is subliminal calypso. Sitar seeps into “Hey Hey You Say” and then washes right out, leaving no gimmicky aftertaste to color the bouncy “We’ve Got All Night.” (But “Weight,” which goes the whole 78 rpm compression route of novelty songs like “Winchester Cathedral,” should have been left on the studio shelf.) Indulging a maritime bent, the trio applies its sweetly harmonized voices to agreeably translucent lyrics about experiences (the beach brawl of “Rolling in the Sand”), ambitions (“Live by the Water”), observations (“Who needs a myth when you’re young and free?,” asks Asthana in the breezy “Say Goodbye”) and demands (“Sing About Me”). “Starting to Be It,” which ends the album on a gently soulful note, answers the oblique title with the refrain, “We’re not there yet.” Yes you are.