54 Seconds

Postcards from California

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For those unfamiliar with Austin-based quartet 54 Seconds, the band takes a bit of explaining. Their frontman, Spencer Gibb, presents himself (deliberately or not) like a singer/songwriter, a trait that his and Luis Guerrero's co-production plays up, as they lavish attention on his vocals. But 54 Seconds are not a solo act, and the rest of the bandmembers are equally crucial to the sound. Rachel Loy's sweet backing vocals provide a foil both to Gibb's own as well as her bandmates. Her bass, in conjunction with Jeff Botta's strong drums, offers more than an excellent backbone to the songs; on numbers like "I Wish I Was a Girl" and "Pocket Full of Numbers" its her bassline that reigns supreme. And then there's keyboardist Stewart Cochran, the wild card in this pack, the man who sets the musical moods, and whose awesome stylistic versatility is the linchpin of 54 Seconds' sound. His work on "New World" is astounding, as he deftly slips from ambience-laden passages into pomp rock, dips into new wave, then sprinkles the song with jazzy runs, as he agilely moves back and forth between styles. He douses "Girl" in orchestral strings, then reaches a lavish apotheosis on the psychedelic-laced, Beatlesque "Breathing." Cochran brings a special touch and an unexpected twist to all the band's songs, at times in conjunction with Gibb, whose piano skills equal Cochran's own. Then again, Gibb's guitar work is just as diverse, as he shifts from glittering, lilting, melodic strums to searing rock solos. On the splashy "Blocking the Sun" the bandmembers exalt in their instruments, bouncing off one another's playing in sheer, exhilarating joy. Hopefully that will be the band's next single; the first from this set is the more muted but equally infectious "Dirty Little Secret," awash in sweet, moody harmonies and glistening guitars. "California" is even more beautiful, filled with yearning and splashed with eloquent piano. The "Summer Version" of "How I Roll" is one of the most complex stylistically, rolling up R&B, jazz, and pop into one glorious package that pays tribute to the '60s, '70s, and beyond. A stellar set brimming with marvelous songs, thoughtful lyrics, sensational arrangements, and heady atmospheres, this is 54 Seconds' strongest album to date, and one wonders how they can possibly top it.

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