Twinky pop students of Sonic Youth, New York’s Sleepyhead wields noisy guitars and some of the airiest vocals on the planet. For all of the casual instrumental aggression, the trio — Michael Galinsky (bass), Chris O’Rourke (guitar/vocals/keyboards) and Rachael McNally (drums/vocals) — sings its eccentrically titled love missives with a timorous adolescent fervor. That effect amplifies the lyrics’ wimp factor, maxing out the winsomosity of Punk Rock City USA numbers like “Riff Test” and the mostly acoustic “Different Colored Letters.” (Before the debut album, Sleepyhead issued a pair of singles and contributed four songs to a ’92 compilation.)
Previewed on a Spanish EP named for one of its songs, Starduster (which, unlike the first album, contains the hyperspeed “Punk Rock City USA”) starts out by claiming adulthood at 22 in “What’s Gonna Set You Free?” and proceeds to demonstrate an elevated state of maturity in subject matter, songwriting and arrangements. (Diminishing his vocal diffidence, O’Rourke employs a hoarse whisper for most of the record.) Concurrent with a tendency toward restrained playing is the dose of well-crafted lyrical imagination that leads to intriguing places like the tremolo-powered afterlife of “Sick of Heaven.” A clear mix and the band’s understatement makes Starduster subtler, but Sleepyhead’s gentle charms remain intact.
Co-produced by Martin Bisi, Communist Love Songs is an all-ways-’round improvement, an absolute charmer of alluring pop, inveigling organ strains, witty and substantial lyrics and an increased vocal role for McNally. She duets (disorientingly, given that their voices are in the same helium register) with O’Rourke on “The Communist Love Song,” making a romantic joke of Marxist sensibilities (“I think you love your credit card much more than you love me”). Managing everything from a sweet lilt to cagey fortitude and urgent intensity, the trio replaces the we-can’t-play-we’re-indie-rock excuse with modest excellence; whatever their political affiliation, “My Blooz,” the goofy “Ice Cream Cone,” the biographical ballad “Rolling Rita” and “Forensic Studies Show” make Communist Love Songs an easy winner of minds and hearts.