On their ’60s-pop influenced self-titled 2010 debut, Los Angeles trio Mini Mansions combined the druggy whimsy of ‘White Album’-era Beatles and The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ with meandering melodies and surreal lyrics about things like ”Monkey vampires, mini shampoos and paranormal preachers”. Five years on, it’s all change for the follow-up. The trio (singer and drummer Michael Shuman, singer and keyboardist Tyler Parkford, bassist and multi instrumentalist Zachary Dawes) have swapped dreamlike symbolism for deep and dark emotion on ‘The Great Pretenders’ – a record Shuman says is about “love, death and existentialism”.
Opener ‘Freakout!’ sets the tone. “You can’t see me crying”, sings Shuman (who plays bass in Queens Of The Stone Age for a day job) before a chorus of “I’ve been down” is repeated in a comforting falsetto over a glistening new wave melody reminiscent of The Cars or Soft Cell. ‘Any Emotions’ has keyboardist Parkford sighing “You could be lonely/But I don’t understand any emotions” as Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson – who Dawes asked to collaborate after playing on the 72-year-old’s upcoming album ‘No Pier Pressure’ – provides a foreboding echo to his call. On the gentle, piano-led ‘Heart Of Stone’, a wounded Parkford admits, “I need you to know/My heart ain’t made of stone” as a whirring synth line spirals elegantly beneath.
It could all be a bit too hearts-on-sleeve if Mini Mansions weren’t so adept at straddling the tightrope between happy and sad. ‘The Great Pretenders’ thrums with anxiety, sorrow and regret throughout, but is counterbalanced by the uplifting, fuzz-laden ‘Double Vision’ and ‘Vertigo’’s sexy, gangster cool that blends ’90s G-funk beats with the sexiness of Nick Cave’s 1994 single ‘Loverman’. The latter is enhanced by a devilish verse from Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and his lines about ”Miss been-there-did-that-and-bought-the-catsuit” who looks “a million dollars”.
That the guest spots from Turner and Wilson are mere footnotes in this album’s story is testament to the glittering work Mini Mansions have created. There are many peaks – the Kills-like ‘Mirror Mountain’ indulges cacophonous guitar freakouts, ‘Fantasy’ is all sci-fi tinged merry-go-round keys, ‘Creeps’ is pure ‘Ziggy Stardust’-era Bowie – that thrill with the eccentric inventiveness that has been a grand tradition in pop for years; and crucially, there are no lows. ‘The Great Pretenders’ is an emotional, emboldened triumph.