Mini Mansions: The Great Pretenders
Label: Capitol Records
Released: March 23, 2015
Despite what some of the press might tell you, Mini Mansions aren't really a Queens of the Stone Age side project. Mini Mansions are an LA-based psychedelic pop trio comprised of Zachary Dawes (guitar and bass), Tyler Parkford (keys and vocals), and Michael Shuman (percussion and vocals) - a distinct animal all its own. Yes, Michael Shuman has been playing bass in Josh Homme's marauding rock collective Queens of The Stone Age since 2007, but arguably wasn't a full-fledged Queen until contributing to their chart-topping Grammy-nominated tour de force ...Like Clockwork from 2013 (my favorite album that year). By that point Shuman and his Mini-cohorts had already been kicking around for years, putting out a stellar and criminally overlooked self-titled debut in 2010. That first album, Mini Mansions (released on Homme's own indie imprint Rekords Rekords) whose sonic palate comprised mostly of piano and saccharine vocal harmonies, sounded like a back-alley showdown between John Lennon, Brian Wilson, and Elton John. I can't say for sure, but I suspect some of that album's deft piano balladry and malevolent carnival atmospherics informed quite a bit of the Queens' new fever-dream keyboard sound on ...Like Clockwork.
On their T-Bone Burnett produced major label sophomore outing, The Great Pretenders, Mini Mansions raise the stakes, blowing out their sound into wider panorama with more color, texture, volume, and a new stomping glam-rock swagger that would make Marc Bolan proud. They're not breaking barriers exactly, but I'm tempted to coin a new genre term for what Mini Mansions are doing - "psychedelic power-glam." The band once again create an album-as-journey, with excellent track sequencing from start to finish. Songs swirl, ebb, flow, and melt into each other like hot wax. The lumbering Farfisa-infused "Honey, I'm Home" glides right into the hip-swiveling trance and frenzied noise-rock crescendo of "Mirror Mountain" while the infectious "Fantasy" boasts so many transitions and pop hooks the band could've easily unraveled and cut it into multiple singles. Lyrically, co-vocalists Shuman and Parkford rein in some of the nonsense surrealism of their debut and focus (mostly in falsetto) on introspective matters of the heart, like on the self-conscious "Creeps", the yearning "Heart of Stone," and the shimmering comedown "The End, Again".
Mini Mansions also bring a few heavyweight friends to the party. Having already borrowed some of Brian Wilson's trademark harmonic magic and production aesthetic for their debut, this time the band actually rub shoulders with the legendary Beach Boy himself on the anthemic slow-build of "Any Emotions" (official video, starring Colin Hanks). Sexy and sinister, and something of an album mission statement, album centerpiece "Vertigo" (official video, NSFW) has cocky Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner sauntering in mid-song with his gooey Midlands croon delivering the album's dick-swingin'est verse - "and since you're such a stunner/ send us something sunset colored/ let's make love to one another/ run for cover." Lecherous come-ons aside, The Great Pretenders boasts dynamic songcraft and fearless grandiosity rare in contemporary pop music and, though traditional rock guitar seldom features, the album never comes across as anything less than rock & roll. With no low points to speak of, and its myriad ear-worm melodies looping in my head daily these past few weeks, this is easily my favorite album of the year so far. Now let's see what Mini Mansions' nearest stylistic peers Tame Impala bring with Currents, that band's forthcoming third album and major label debut (apparently featuring less guitar and more keys, Mini Mansions' modus operandi from the start). The Great Pretenders will be a tough act to follow.