Graded on a Curve:
The Flat Five,
Another World

Chicago’s The Flat Five features singer-songwriters and valued session vocalists Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, NRBQ members Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough, and in-demand drummer (Modern Sounds/ Chris Foreman/ J.D. McPherson) Alex Hall. After too long a wait they are back with Another World, their sophomore full-length brimming with beacon-bright and utterly accessible vocals-driven classic pop, an approach that’s spiked with winning moments of eccentricity and surprises landing it solidly in the keeper category. It’s out on LP, CD and digital November 13 through the joint auspices of Pravda Records and Augiedisc Records.

Upon considering The Flat Five’s debut It’s a World of Love and Hope back in October 2016, I described them as a supergroup. Here it is four years later and I’m thinking that designation is a tad misleading. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to call them a side-project that advances in fits and starts as time allows, as the participants are so busy elsewhere; it’s noted that The Flat Five only play one live show a year.

The thing, well, one thing, that keeps their music sharp is cohesiveness in the writing, as all of the songs on Another World (and their prior album) were composed by Scott Ligon’s older brother Chris. Make that cohesive and distinctive, as a significant percentage of the eccentricity mentioned above relates to lyrics that are appealingly descriptive and unusual, and right away in the opener to their latest, “Drip a Drop,” which offers organ tinged gal-pop ’60s-style, and with sexy sass in the words that might even stir a giggle from Millie Jackson. The cranky stabs of guitar are icing on the sugar cake.

It’s mentioned that Chris Ligon is a songwriter favored by that connoisseur of the comedic and oddball Dr. Demento, and “Look at the Birdy,” which details a department store portrait photographer’s attempts at getting a child to smile for the camera, makes it pretty clear why. But even with a few prime laugh lines (“welcome to Sears”/ “you really got you some ears”) it avoids faltering into a fest of yuks.

This is appreciated, as is the track’s mainstream 1950s pop vibe (fitting for the subject matter) complete with wordless backing vocals, and yet legitimately jazzy, with some uncommonly sturdy saxophone recalling the heyday of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Paul Gonsalves. It’s this attention to depth and detail that brings Another World’s songs to life, as The Flat Five excel at the vibrant rather than the edgy.

It’s this vividness coupled with the sheer forcefulness of the delivery, both instrumentally (particularly the piano) and vocally, that propels “I Don’t Even Care” far beyond the merely quirky. The song definitely wafts the aroma of a smart guy singer-songwriter circa the ’70s or early ’80s, effectively underscoring The Flat Five’s versatility, as does “The Great State of Texas,” which hits the ear like a extract from an Americana-themed Broadway musical (the sorta tune I suspect Stephin Merritt would dig).

It’s impossible for me to not think of Buddy Holly while “This’ll Be the Day” plays, but I can also imagine a sadly fictitious one-off single cut around ’73 or so by Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, and Randy Newman (regarding thoughts of the latter, it’s the lyrics, here referencing Robert Mulligan’s 1965 film Inside Daisy Clover, even more than the prominence of piano).

With “Girl of Virginia” the jazziness returns, but here it’s far more in the mode of a ’70s pop sophisticate. This contrasts with “Butterflies Don’t Bite,” which is a slice of pure ’60s vocal pop with some ivories tinkling, crisp guitar, Herb Alpert-like horn and backing singers possibly on loan from Juan Garcia Esquivel. “Oh What a Day” returns to the erudite tunesmith angle of “I Don’t Even Care,” but with a heightened approach to humor; a series of lines even inspired me to belly laugh.

But I’ll reemphasize that Ligon’s lyrics and The Flat Five’s execution avoid succumbing to comedy-pop, as there’s nothing at all funny about “House of Foam,” a tune which adds touches of Rundgren to the general aura of keyboard-based pop refinement. And furthermore there’s nothing amusing about late wildcard “The World Missed Out,” either: the mixture of what sounds like electric banjo and programmed rhythms brings to mind Merritt again, but instead of synth pop the cut dives into gal-sung late ‘70s R&B, elegant but with punch.

“Over and Out” concludes Another World with an energetic shuffle that becomes fully mariachi-ed out, and with a couple of trombone rumblings so serrated they could cut tin cans in half. But the song’s greater gifts are the buoyancy of Hogan and O’Connor’s vocal interjections and a whole that reinforces Ligon and McDonough’s participation in the enduring story of those stalwarts of American music, NRBQ. Indeed, the song’s quick fadeout highlights The Flat Five’s full schedule and makes the amiable nature of these songs all the more impressive.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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