You probably need to be a certain age to understand why any contemporary band would want to sound like Bread, the 70s soft-rock band. Bread’s founder and lead singer, the trebly-voiced David Gates, had a way of yoking bad poetry to gently hooky guitar riffs to create a sum greater than the parts. The ridiculously twisted syntax of “Baby, I’m-a want you/Baby, I’m-a need you/You’re the only one I care enough to hurt about,” paired with a lead guitar shading into a country-western mood, made for a memorable tune that rose to number three in 1971 (undoubtedly on the buying power of 10-year-old girls and their moms). When the molasses of Bread got too glutinous, there was always the palate-cleansing freshness of America, whose weird song about a nameless horse in a desert that was also an ocean (with its life underground and the perfect disguise above) made them more dangerous than David Gates. Their 1972 hit “Ventura Highway” rolled along in a sunny, feeling-no-pain way that most Bread songs didn’t, the proof being how great it felt (and still feels) to drive with that song on the radio. And when the whole cute-blond-sensitive-hippie-boy thing got old, you had the mature FM jolie laide of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and Young). Which basically brought you back to Bread, who, because of their ubiquitousness on AM radio, were always more present in daily life. Certain moods and motifs seemed to devolve to Bread. There was something about the structural and musical underpinnings of those classic three-minute songs that even Gates’s shitty poetry couldn’t ruin. And Maplewood, a contemporary band from Brooklyn, understands this and can access it without baldly referencing or merely reproducing that influence.
Without a shred of irony—with, in fact, a sometimes embarrassing amount of sincerity—the band purveys an appealing hybrid canyon-rock/driving-with-the-radio-on sound. The layerings of vocal harmonies and strummy guitars on their self-titled debut album, just released on Tee Pee Records, recall classic acoustically driven bands like CSNY, America, and the Byrds; the romantically inclined lyrics and the sweetness with which they’re delivered put one in mind of the well-crafted, catchy hits that once spanned the Billboard Top 40: Sammy Johns’s “Chevy Van,” the Bellamy Brothers’s “Let Your Love Flow,” and Seals & Crofts’s “Summer Breeze” (with a nod to the Isley Brothers’s more sensuous, orientalized version). There are also echoes of Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water” (the song, not the album) in the opening notes of “Sea Hero,” Elvis Costello’s “Party Girl” (from Armed Forces) in the bass line of “Little Dreamer Girl,” and even a mellow Stones moment in the burnished pedal steel of “Desert Queen.” But more than just the laundry list of influences/references, what’s really interesting is that the five musicians who make up the band come from a variety of other bands that sound nothing like this one: drummer Ira Elliot hails from the Fuzztones (later Nada Surf), guitarists Mark Rozzo and Steve Koester from Champale, Craig Schoen from Winterville, and Jude Webre from the Places. Ten-year music veterans, these guys produce a sound that is purposeful and accessible, informed and inviting.
“Although we had no preconceived ideas about how the album should sound,” says guitarist Craig Schoen, who also produced the album in his home studio, “the main idea was vocals, vocals, vocals. We have three lead singers, basically. On 85 to 90 percent of our songs, at least two of us sing all the way through. Sometimes it’s all three of us. There’s a definite vocal centerpiece to each song, but by the end it’s usually all of us.”
And the harmonies are indeed beautiful, but in a great pop song harmonies exist to serve lyrics, and here Maplewood has work to do. To put it over the top, this album needs an infusion of classic pop polyphony: words and music working together. With a few exceptions—for example, the inviting opening of “Indian Summer” (“The sand—feel the waves between your toes/Can you feel the way the old wind blows/From one to another/Care to discover/Indian summer”), perfectly matched to guitars and vocal harmonies—the lyrics tend to be background for the music, as in “Santa Fe”: “Santa Fe, Santa Fe/We lost the way/Santa Fe, hey, what should I say?/Show me the way, show me the way, show me the way.” The reason why those old 70s tunes were so memorable was that the pure sounds of the words as they fell together—the counterpoint of metered vowels and consonants—were as clever and shapely as the melodies. Those two elements working together create the seemingly effortless beauty of a great pop song. That’s something Maplewood has yet to do. But once they figure it out, look out.