Tiny Lights were a perfectly lovely jumble of plaintive pop, Close to the Edge-style epics, jazzy forays and neo-hippie lullabies that, if not for a procession of label failures, might have found an audience as broad as its tastes. While the quintet’s brand of fragile, childlike folk-pop has led many a sincere young combo down the garden path of pretension and preciousness, Tiny Lights possessed the talent and personality to execute the style with just the right blend of innocence and smarts, as well as a minimum of selfconsciousness. Not as naïve as Donna Croughn’s sweet, girlish vocals might imply, these urban pastoralists from Hoboken, New Jersey were pretty sophisticated, especially when arranging songs to fit Croughn’s electric violin, cello (played by Jane Scarpantoni until the demand for her as a session player became too great and Stuart Hake replaced her in 1992), John Hamilton’s surprisingly intricate guitar lines and a rhythm section that doubled on trumpet and saxophone.
Prayer for the Halcyon Fear is a delightful debut, alternately delicate (“Flowers Through the Air,” “Blue Dot Cleanser”) and rocking (“Zippity-Do- Dah,” “Chesterfield Gorge”), with a mildly psychedelic sense of play that sets the band apart. (Inexplicably, this unpretentious, accessible record was issued in the UK by Psychic TV’s Temple label.)
Hazel’s Wreath lacks its predecessor’s giddy sense of discovery, but is a solid mix of solemnity and abandon (often within the same song, as on “Grown-up Fish” and “The Bridge”). Following Hazel’s Wreath, Tiny Lights recorded a third album, Know It You Love, but Gaia Records folded before issuing it.
Some hard touring in the early ’90s added muscle and maturity to the band’s enthusiasm and expansiveness, an effect first evident on the live-feeling, 8-track recording of Hot Chocolate Massage. Tiny Lights recut two of the lost album’s songs for this wonderful disc, a combination of lilting pastoral tunes (“Moonwhite Day,” “Big Straw Hat”) and heavier numbers (“Wave,” “After All”) that again proved sincerity needn’t be dull.
Meanwhile, touring had also weathered Croughn’s voice into something more earthy and evocative. More adept at its acoustic numbers, better able to ground its joyous psychedelia within the rhythms of the increasingly impressive rhythm section (bassist Dave Dreiwitz and drummer Andy Damos), the band hits its accomplished peak with Stop the Sun, I Want to Go Home. “Everybody’s in the Park” bests 10,000 Maniacs—who at one time opened for Tiny Lights—at their own game, and “Better,” sung by Hamilton, is the best pure rock song Tiny Lights ever did.
Milky Juicy is the band’s most adventurous, eclectic record. Comfortable in what it can do but undaunted by what it can’t, Tiny Lights rifles through a sample-book’s worth of styles, never sticking with one sound two songs in a row. The personality and family feel is never more evident (indeed, by this time Croughn and Hamilton had gotten married) or its sentiments and observations more accessible. Milky Juicy is the sound of a band following its heart.
Assembled as a tenth-anniversary present to its fans, The Young Person’s Guide to Tiny Lights combines a handful of songs recorded for Know It You Love along with “hits” and favorites. Because Tiny Lights’ records never stayed in one groove for too long, the compilation’s hodgepodge is about as formulaic as anything it’s done. And that’s a good thing.