OK this is kind of confusing: three guys from Champaign-Urbana, IL, including singer/guitarist Brian Leach, formerly of the late and lamented Sugarbuzz, formed a band called Life on Mars (after the Bowie song, of course). Just as they were prepping their debut album for release, they discovered that another band had already copped their name from the Bowie song. Although promo copies had already gone out under the Life on Mars name, Parasol Records pulled the album and the trio quickly renamed themselves Autoliner, after a song on the disc. So the self-titled debut by Life on Mars was finally eventually released as Life on Mars by Autoliner. Got that? It's worth going through that rigmarole, simply because Life on Mars is a terrific album that deserves not to be lost in the confusion of its release. All three Autoliners -- Leach, bassist John Ross, and drummer Tom Curless -- write and sing, and the album contains some of the best three-part harmonies this side of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The music is your basic late-'90s indie guitar pop, but with some exquisite folk-rock and lite-psych elements that lift it far above the run of the mill. The opening "Undone," with its spine-tingling harmonies and instantly memorable chorus (supported, like many of the songs, by subtle but effective strings and trumpet), is a simply perfect pop song. What makes Life on Mars remarkable is that Undone is only the first of several; "If You Please" mixes a bossa nova verse and a power chord chorus without sounding like two songs jammed together, "The Arthur C. Clarke Blues" and "Happy Summer Uber Alles" live up to their titles, and a dreamy cover of the Mamas & the Papas' "Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)" finds new meanings and emotions in a terribly dated song. Leach mixes acoustic and electric guitar parts into a jangle pop stew that's equal part 1966 Byrds and 1983 R.E.M., and as noted, the harmonies are simply out of this world. Using retro elements without sounding like slavish revivalists, Autoliner have crafted a stellar debut.
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