Noel Stephen and the Darlings – “Ten Years Too Late”

Noel Stephens and the Darlings show immense potential with their latest LP – Grafton Tanner

Grafton Tanner

out of 10

Noel Stephen & the Darlings
Ten Years Too Late
May 23, 2011

There is a moment on Bon Iver’s “Perth” during which two drummers volley a barrage of double bass simultaneously.  The phrasing is odd, and the rhythm uncharacteristic of a “typical” double bass pattern.  The part would be challenging for any one drummer, and with the two, a few slips and false starts occur.  These hiccups in rhythm and timing lend the piece a natural, organic feel.  It is human.  Elemental.  People made this rhythm, not a machine.

Noel Stephen and the Darlings (people again, not machines) made Ten Years Too Late.  People adept at arranging complex parts with chord progressions that would make any music theorist/Beatles fan get happy.  The Darlings have a knack for crafting beautiful parts on their instruments.  But goodness me, somebody teach these cats some rhythm.

The majority of my experience with Ten Years Too Late involved me cringing in anticipation for the drummer to kick into a sloppy fill, break the time of the song, and cause the entire thing fall to pieces.  It was kind of like teetering on the edge of a rock−one slip, and it’s all over.  The album isn’t filled with “Perth” moments.  These lapses in timing (the other instrumentalists are just as guilty as the drummer here) do not make for an elemental, natural feel.  Instead, the entire thing seems thrown together.  The intention is irrelevant.  These timing issues are serious…and too distracting to “work.”

“My French and Indian War” opens the record and sets up the thesis: boppy 50’s pop with a twinge of Brit-wave vocals.  “Constellation” continues to move the album forward with its discordant acoustic progression paired with a saccharine sweet show tune vocal melody sung by the gifted singer Maria.  Her presence is somewhat of an anachronism, which forces the listener to straddle fifty years of pop.  One leg in Annette Funicello’s shoe, the other in Stornoway’s recording studio.  The guitars bend; the piano plinks away; and the drums are on the verge of falling down the stairs.

Everything seems fairly straight-laced on Ten Years until the arrival of “Your Scarf.”  The opening synth riff definitely elicits a “Hey, wait a second, where are we?” moment even if it is pretty catchy.  It is absolutely out of place in an already illogical pop song: surfer rock with the bite of grunge guitar and…an arpeggiator?  What’s going on, Noel?  Once again, the Darlings have managed to throw several decades of pop into a pot.  You know when you mix all the colors of paint and get black?  It’s kinda like that.   Halfway through, the Darlings take a Fleet Foxes left turn (structurally, not stylistically).  It’s a lovely moment with Noel and Maria singing around each other, their voices rising, spinning, intertwining in the blurry crystalline bop of the music.  In mere minutes, we’ve taken quite a journey.  It ends well, but the ride there is a bit much.

“Vandalized” is a fairly dynamic moment on the record.  It is another example of the Darlings’ ability to arrange multiple instruments with aplomb.  Following it are “Telephone Photograph” and “If You Love Me, Emily,” both stripped down pieces that highlight Noel’s Typhoon-esque vocals.  The lyrics are endearing and honest, the kind of thing you’d lull your lover to sleep with.  I wouldn’t sing “If You Love Me, Emily” to an English major though.  As an ode to Emily Dickinson, it is as cheeky as it is cliché.  C’mon, Noel.  You and I both know Emily would pull a Plath if she heard this.  “If you love me, Emily, then open up your blinds.  Let all of the good Lord in with his sunshine.”  Remember, you’re crooning to the girl who wrote about that fly buzzing round her head.  Hmmm.

After these short sketches, “The Love I Have” appears.  It is the truest 50’s pop song on the album.  No eclecticism.  Just straight up retro.  It’s an appropriate cap to the album, yet if follows the two slowest, most stripped down tracks on the album.  Perhaps one more song would have secured the flow.  But, instead, we’re all thrown from the laze of tracks 7 and 8 to the happy bop of the closer.  And then bam, we’re done.

Noel Stephen and his vocal partner are gifted with incredible voices that complement a sound akin to Noah and the Whale and the aforementioned Typhoon.  This is 2011 throwback pop with flecks of the modern thrown in.  Yet, a lack of cohesion and the Darlings’ tendency to overload a single song with anomalous instruments create a breakthrough album that illustrates a certain amount of musical immaturity.  On top of that, the record is just not tight.  The players themselves are not tight.  Their sloppy playing is severely poor and is a significant weakness in their sound.  With some tightening up, the Darlings could find themselves on the wave of pop artists rising today.  But first, let’s dust off the metronome.

These fine folks will be in Atlanta at the Drunken Unicorn on Friday, July 29th!

-Grafton Tanner, July 16, 2011