Albums with good stories — Smile, What’s Going On and Rumours — are very often special. The debut from Dublin’s Thrills has a story, and it’s a good one. Fans of such West Coast icons as Love, the Buffalo Springfield and Randy Newman, the band relocated to San Diego in 1999 because “that’s where the kids are.” They rented a cottage on the beach for four months (that’s a feat!) and managed to soak up a lot of sun and Americana, both cultural and musical. To test these influences, the Irish quintet returned a year later to San Francisco, thus managing to experience, in one state, two polar opposites. Back in Ireland, they began to record demos from the laid-back sun-drenched hippie kingdom that lies between Santa Barbara and San Jose. So Much for the City has garnered comparisons to practically every West Coast pop artist that ever entered a recording studio.
The Thrills scatter names of cities and regions throughout the album, borrowing musical ideas wholesale. The opening number, “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far),” begins with a 27-second verse, then gallops through a series of choruses and bridges, all different and all memorable. “Big Sur” and “One Horse Town” benefit from syncopated banjo, organ washes and high harmonies. In fact, the vocals are all in the upper reaches of whatever key they happen to be playing in, and it’s sometimes anyone’s guess if lead singer Conor Deasy is going to make it. Once or twice he doesn’t, but even that’s more endearing than annoying. “Don’t Steal Our Sun” has a piano figure that would make Harry Nilsson proud, with the sort of massed background vocals native to Brian Wilson records. “Deckchairs and Cigarettes” begins as a narrative of the band’s San Diego summer before it veers off into what-might-have-been territory. The arrangements are fine throughout, with pedal steel added on some by LA session legend J. D. Manness. The drums are mixed back and a lot of the piano has a music hall honky tonk sound reminiscent of ’60s records by Peter and Gordon or the Turtles.
There are practically no solos here, but that doesn’t hurt at all. The rhythm section provides interesting breaks throughout, adding drama to “Don’t Steal Our Sun” and “Old Friends, New Lovers.” Even the slow tempo “Hollywood Kids” doesn’t drag. The note-for-note quote of Burt Bacharach’s “24 Hours From Tulsa” which begins “Your Love Is Like Las Vegas” is just right. It helps that the musical echoes the Thrills placed on their record are somewhat obscure. Traces of Neil Young, Tom Petty and the Byrds can be heard, but also Brinsley Schwarz, David Ackles, the Dillards and Jimmy Webb. If So Much for the City benefits from its amazing story, it’s because the Thrills put the story into the record.