Graded on a Curve:
The Proper Ornaments,
Foxhole

The Proper Ornaments hail from London and boy howdy do they sound like it. Described by their US label Slumberland as falling into a long tradition of UK guitar groups, they’ve found a secure position betwixt the neighborhoods of indie pop and ’60s-inspired melodic rock without getting too comfortable in the process. Benefiting from heightened confidence and an increasingly steady rhythm section, their third full-length Foxhole is out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

The scoop is that a chance meeting of vintage clothes shop clerk James Hoare and transplanted Argentinian Max Oscarnold aka Maximo Claps spurred The Proper Ornaments into existence. To be blunt, Maximo Claps sounds like the name of a villain in a ’60s Euro-spy flick, and the details of that first meeting, with Mr. Claps attempting to distract as his girlfriend pulled a klepto maneuver on a pair of shoes, suggest a plot point from an unfilmed Wes Anderson script.

Furthermore, sounding almost too good to not be fabricated, it was none other than former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham who scooped up Oscarnold and delivered him to London after his band (which Oldham had produced) suffered a drug-fueled falling apart. On top of it all, Oscarnold’s family looked to have him institutionalized.

Thankfully, the footwear fleecing was aborted (not her size, alas) and in its place a musical partnership blossomed over such mutual likes at the Velvets (natch), classic Los Angelinos Love and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and ’60s channeling post-punk/ indie pop exponents Felt. Nabbing a name from a tune on The Free Design’s Kites Are Fun, The Proper Ornaments were born.

Hoare is part of Ultimate Painting and Veronica Falls while Oscarnold is a member of Toy and half of Pink Flames with Isobel Spurgeon; befitting a band formed by multitaskers, the Ornaments aren’t about breaking new ground but are instead deeply devoted to hitting the right genre notes to inspired effect; Slumberland places them in the tradition of The Beatles, Durutti Column, Television Personalities, and Teenage Fanclub.

This establishes their blend of ’60s and ’80s quite nicely, though the occasional use of rhythmic presets on their early stuff does underscore attentiveness to the days when Reagan and Thatcher ruled their respective roosts. Additionally, “Recalling,” which served as the A-side to their debut 45 back in 2010, resonates in this writer’s ears as an extension of the guitar sound The Clean swiped and so successfully adapted from the VU.

The Ornaments’ early singles and EPs ended up corralled by Lo Recordings onto ’13’s Waiting for the Summer, so folks desiring to start chronologically know where to begin. And it’s a solid affair, but even more impressive is their first proper full-length, the next year’s Wooden Head, a 14-song affair that commenced their association with Slumberland; in the UK, the LP was issued by the reliable Fortuna Pop! imprint.

Wooden Head also brought drummer Bobby Syme and bassist Daniel Nellis into the fold, their arrival only helping to solidify the already well-honed UK-ish neo-’60s pop-psych thrust (think of a less-distortion inclined Jesus and Mary Chain) in Hoare and Oscarnold’s songs. Locating excitement in this zone is trickier than one might think; blandness or outright genericism are recurring snafus in this scenario, but with Foxhole they’ve managed to avoid the snag yet again.

It’s all right there in opener “Back Pages.” Favoring crisp, near-metronomic glide, the song kicks into gear and then, courtesy of a chiming guitar figure and breathy, unhurried vocals, it fruitfully hangs there for the duration. Ultimate Painting has been compared more than once to The Clientele, and the same can be said of The Proper Ornaments, though “Cremated (Blown Away)” picks up the pace as it injects the third-album Velvets holding pattern with sunshine pop airiness and tidy string licks at the close.

Squarely not about flashiness, they instead chose the sturdy execution of sustained mood, though “Memories” is a distinguished slice of post-Beatles psych-inflected writing that’s memorable qualities elevate it into pop-auteur territory. Piano is structurally integral to the appeal of “Just a Dream” as the instrument’s use extends into “1969”; those glimpsing that title and hoping for a hunk of Stooge-like rock will be disappointed, but frankly that severe of a detour would’ve been disruptive to the Ornaments’ extended objective.

More subtly effective are the swells of synth-like keyboard, an additive that enhances the psych feel without easily conforming to either the neo-’60s or indie pop rulebooks. However, by the emergence of “The Frozen Stare” the question of Foxhole’s appeal should be settled, with obsessives of the abovementioned styles and outfits likely to be pleased.

Folks indifferent to this brand of formal revisionism will probably remain unmoved, but the above average lyrics and the non-contrived ’60s influence of “Jeremy’s Song” could sway a few doubters. From there, “When We Were Young” winningly mingles pop folk with a hint of early soft rock, and then the unperturbed maraca-shake progression of “Bridge by a Tunnel” unwinds like an unreleased single from the later days of the Creation label.

It would’ve made a fine if perhaps a tad too obvious finale, so there are two more tracks behind it; “I Know You Know” is a solid strummer swaddled in warm gusts of distortion, while “The Devils” dips into pop ambitiousness one last time. The piano is more assertive as bowed strings enter the picture and a general air of melancholy is conjured. Foxhole isn’t a genre defining masterpiece, but it finds The Proper Ornaments steadfastly sidestepping bum notes as they provide temporarily satisfaction to those passionately attuned to its frequency.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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