Folk, Fusion, Guitar: Pop Flavors

Sally McGraw gives her take on three recent local releases, from the bands Romantica, Ryan Lee, and Atomic Flea.

Ryan Lee
Atomic Flea

Modern pop: Romantica
“It’s Your Weakness That I Want”

Things are looking good for Romantica. The folk-pop trio has all the elements of a band bound for mainstream popularity. Drummer and percussionist Mark Hedlund is a veteran Twin Cities musician, and lends the group credibility and a fine set of contacts. Frontman and songwriter Ben Kyle hails from Belfast, and makes little attempt to curb his lilting Irish vowels, lending his vocal delivery the appeal of the foreign. Romantica’s debut album, “It’s Your Weakness That I Want,” was recorded at legendary local studio, Seedy Underbelly. And the group’s songs have the same wistfully angst-ridden quality as Bellwether, Damien Rice, Cary Brothers, and half of the “Garden State” soundtrack – which means they’re ripe for airplay.

“It’s Your Weakness That I Want” is a moody little collection of songs that would make a great soundtrack for a candlelit dinner … or possibly a bubble bath. With the exception of deeply annoying country experiments “There She Goes” and “Break II,” the album has a consistently mellow, hypnotic tone. Arrangements are lush and varied, incorporating some tasteful Hammond B3 work, shimmering electric guitar, melancholy piano, and sweetly sentimental violin. Multi-instrumentalist Luke Jacobs is kept busy, and does a bang-up job of giving Romantica a luxurious, layered sound.

Kyle is clearly a poet at heart. His lyrics are descriptive and complex, and there’s plenty of them to be had. Broken hearts and lonely nights abound in these wordy tracks. And although he can get a little self-absorbed at times, Kyle’s colorful characters and engaging stories redeem him in the end. The first two tracks – lazy rocker “On My Mind” and ironic ballad “Oscar Wilde” – are the album’s standouts.

Kyle is slightly less whiney than some of his modern-pop cohorts. Thankfully, he has more of Jakob Dylan’s earthy rasp than Damien Rice’s wobbly croon. But he sounds a bit bored at times, and fails to blend with his harmony vocalists. Still, his slightly breathy, unadorned baritone is a good match for the ethereal songs he’s penned.

If you’re feeling down, or would like to, “It’s Your Weakness That I Want” will appeal. This album is a perfect fit for modern pop fans who need something to tide them over until the Wallflowers next album comes out.

Fusion pop: Ryan Lee
“The Pride Before the Fall”

Ryan Lee is fairly new to the songwriting game. His debut album, “The Pride Before the Fall,” includes some of the first songs he’s ever written – but you’d hardly know it. A few tracks have the highly-experimental, growing-pains feel of a first effort, but overall this pleasingly eclectic group of songs speaks of a strong talent growing stronger.

“The Pride Before the Fall” shies away from traditional, guitar-based pop. Instead, Lee serves up a progressive hybrid of folk-pop and electronica. The holy trinity of acoustic guitar, bass, and drums form the backbone of most songs – but they are augmented by tasteful samples and programmed beats. Bassist and producer Matthew Freed (formerly of Domo Sound) helps shape Lee’s vision of stylistic amalgamation. And since computerized percussion will always lack a vital warmth, Lee wisely incorporates drummer Eric Smith to round out his complex sound.

Lee’s lyrical style is more prose than verse, often trading the memory-triggering rhyme for the evocative power of narrative. This effective technique forces the listener to pay attention to song content, and frees the songwriter from trite, formulaic lyrical structures. Tracks like the semi-industrial, East Indian-influenced “I Pretend” and contemplative ballad “If Anything” are fearlessly rhyme-free for entire verses. The song structures are also experimental and unusual; very few follow the verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern. And although Lee has a frustrating penchant for long, silent pauses halfway way through his songs, his overall musical instincts are outstanding.

To top it all off, Lee is blessed with the perfect pop voice. He has enviable range, perfect pitch, and a knack for frank emotional delivery. The album contains a run of songs – “Policia Falsa,” “Guilt,” and “Too Little Too Late” – in which vocals are run through a distorting processor, rendering the songs robotic and inaccessible. But aside from those tracks, Lee’s gorgeous voice shines on every track.

Ryan Lee pushes boundaries with a fearlessness accessible only to musicians whose talent remains unsullied by formal training. “The Pride Before the Fall” is a stellar debut that will appeal to all open-minded pop fans.

Guitar pop: Atomic Flea
“The Means”

The second full-length album from four-piece guitar-pop outfit Atomic Flea, “The Means” is a rollicking collection of harmony-heavy Beatles-influenced tunes. Comprised of lyricist/vocalist Eric Kreidler, bassist John Hizon, percussionist Bill Rhomberg, and guitarist Mike Senkovich (also of the Humbugs), Atomic Flea isn’t actively gigging at the moment. But “The Means” will give you a healthy dose of the band’s upbeat musical stylings.

Kreidler’s lyrics are simple and clean – accessible without feeling trite. Arrangements are lush and well-produced, with Hizon’s subtle bass balancing the pleasing jangle of Senkovich’s guitar. Rhomberg’s drumming is solid, if a bit dull at times. Vocal harmonies are skillful and well-balanced, adding depth and texture to the album’s polished pop sound.

These songs follow tried-and-true pop formulas so closely that you’ll feel you’ve heard them before. “I Fall Down” could be a Moxy Fruvous tune; “Over Now” has the sweeps and curves of late Crowded House; “Suburbs” sounds like the missing track from “Revolver.” Yet they stop just short of being derivative, and there is pleasing variety in this collection of tracks. “Alive” is a jubilant rock romp, “Constellations” a contemplative ballad, and the title track an upbeat rockabilly number.

Where this album falls short is with Kreidler’s pitchy vocals. His voice is unadorned and earnest, lending pleasing sincerity to his delivery. But he aims too high – botching complex scoops and flourishes, souring the occasional harmony, and ending up flat while utilizing both the upper and lower ends of his range. In addition to needing a little studio-tweaking for pitch issues, Kreidler’s vocals are also mixed fairly dry and might’ve benefited from a bit more reverb.

Guitar-based pop fans with forgiving ears will enjoy this album. Although its main weakness is unavoidable, its strengths will redeem it for many.