On a frigid late-February evening in 2008, I stumbled into Burlington’s Radio Bean and caught a ragtag Champlain College band called Villanelles. It was an underwhelming performance. The group bore all the telltale signs of the young, inexperienced band they were: derivative songwriting, overtly melodramatic hooks, aimless arrangements and, likely as a result, noticeable insecurity. Still, beneath those flaws lay a burning, nascent potential. Two and a half years, a couple of download-only EPs, and one 2010 Seven Daysies award later — for Best New VT Band, no less — Villanelles are poised to finally deliver on that promise. And the proof lies in their sparkling, self-titled debut full-length, released last month.
The aptly titled “Summertime Hit” leads off with Tristan Baribeau’s sun-soaked lead-guitar line ricocheting through the speakers like a pinball in a Coney Island arcade. The front man matches his bright riff with a breezy vocal delivery that belies the song’s brooding lyrics. His high, reedy tenor flits and swoons over splashes of Zane Gundersen’s piano and a light rip current courtesy of bassist Evan Borden.
“Wait It Out” is next, and starts out a little close to aping Clap Your Hands Say Yeah for comfort. But with a clever arrangement that features a number of surprising twists and a healthy dose of carefree vocal harmony, the band elevates the tune beyond mere hero worship.
“Abstinence” is a kaleidoscopic gem, evoking the bright psychedelic pop of late-1960s bands such as the Association or, in darker moments, the Zombies. It is possibly the album’s most ambitious cut, and certainly among its most artistically developed. A true stunner.
“Getting Out of My Head” is a driving, mid-tempo scorcher. Baribeau’s dynamic delivery is purposeful but vulnerable — or, in other words, everything you want in a good breakup song.
“Heavy Breathing” lightens the mood in a cleansing wash of hazy guitar and piano. Villanelles are at their best on slower numbers, which allow more room to indulge fanciful instrumental arrangements and heady, narcotic vocal flourishes. And, like “Abstinence” before it, this song is a fine example. As is the following number, “The Waltz,” which provides a three-minute, mostly instrumental interlude before the record’s final act.
Following the relatively unremarkable “Auto,” the band returns to form on the jaunty, “My Money Keeps Me Warm.” The song has hooks on top of hooks, and resembles early Cold War Kids in both style and tone.
The moody, searching “Our Love Song” sets up the disc’s closing tune, “Sway by Design.” Where the former bristles with a combination of wonder and cautious hesitation, the latter explodes in a triumphant flurry of pop bombast, before yielding, contentedly, on a bed of airy guitar and piano.
Catch Villanelles with the Dirty Watts and Pig Whistle this Friday at Langdon Street Café in Montpelier, and with Happy Birthday and Crinkles on Monday at Winooski’s Monkey House.