Review: Mini Mansions, The Great Pretenders

mini mansions

Chloe Keung considers the sophomore longplayer from the Los Angeles based three-piece:

Mini Mansions is strange pop. They are the alternative history of The Beatles with modern technology: ‘British Beat’ music of the 60’s surfing on the waves of effect pedals, electronics and vintage groove. Perhaps their sound is the summation of the past 50 years of pop music.

The band is composed of three multi-instrumentalists who are only loosely committed to their roles: Zach Dawes on bass, Tyler Parkford on vocals and keys and Michael Shurman (of Queens of the Stone Age) on vocals and drums. As multi-instrumentalists, they each have a strong arsenal of skills to provide to the group and it certainly shows on their sophomore release, The Great Pretenders.

Setting the tone is upbeat opener ‘Freak Out!’, your typical happy-go-lucky track. It is choice; it could even be a fitting soundtrack to a flash mob scene right out of an indie-cult romance like 500 Days of Summer. It is safe pop, establishing a familiar boundary of comfort only to be broken with the magic that is the rest of the album.

I won’t even need to wax poetic here: I am in love with ‘Death Is A Girl’. It is a brilliant track. It is 80’s goth. It is melancholy desperation, from the eerie tape strings to the storm of synthesisers. Mini Mansions have written melodies that say so much with a lack of words. But when there are words, they are perfect:

“You gotta live in a world where there’s only one day
Death is a girl and she’s only one dance away.”

In this album, the beat is usually incessant, rolling like waves. But none of the music is ever enslaved to the beat. Many of the songs, like ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Honey, I’m Home’ are home to the sweet complexity of melodious bass lines. Even beneath the infinite layers of electronic, the bass steals the show. Zach Dawes sure can make the bass sing.

In a surprising twist, ‘Emotions’ has Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys on vocals, instantly dusting the track in a beachy, golden hue. This song is exemplar of the magnificent use of layering on the album. It starts off minimally, reminding me of a summer surf. That dulcet voice echoes, sailing on a vast sea of lulling guitars and non-descript effects. The layers build towards a surprising breakdown that is overwhelming and has me feeling capsized beneath the waves.

‘Vertigo’, the first song I heard from Mini Mansions, features the one and only Alex Turner of Sheffield rockers The Arctic Monkeys. Alex brings to the table his renowned singing style – offbeat, pseudo-adlibbed phrases sprinkled here and there (and an accent to die for). What used to be a vocal style fitted to his raucous, teenage years with the early Arctic Monkeys has developed into a suave serenade. Alex Turner brings a whole lot of class to ‘Vertigo’.

‘Mirror Mountain’ features excessive use of delay. It is so Doppler. So dope. This song will launch every bedroom guitarist into a serious case of pedal envy. By the end of the album, it was hard to imagine back to the beginning. Last track, ‘The End, Again’, is dichotomous compared to ‘Freak Out!’. For one, it has its foundation on electronically imitated tribal drums. Electric guitars then swirl like bird cries over a psychedelic soundscape. It is a feathery end to such an explosive record.

This album has multiple personalities. It is songwriting and production of the highest echelon. Surprisingly, the catchiest songs on The Great Pretenders are not even the happy, upbeat ones. They are the darkest. The rawest. The Great Pretenders proves that pop is not always happy, and that is what made me fall in love with Mini Mansions.

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Words by Chloe Keung