Carrying an axe, giving that “come hither” look to the girl in the front row, and wearing leather pants got you far in the 80s; yet, your buddy who can noodle out a Bon Jovi or Poison solo is still living in his parents’ basement. Why? It ain’t the ’80s anymore. And tell your friend to stop wearing leather pants; he’d last about five minutes at a biker bar.
Paper Brain suffers from the same problem albeit a different era. They made a ’60s and ’70s influenced ’90s indie pop record in the 21st century. It’s not a bad record; it just isn’t in the right decade. It would be as if Pedro the Lion made the Whole EP last year or Pavement decided to try Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: Part II to bring in a little more coin. Yes, Crooked Rain is a landmark. No question. It isn’t 1994 anymore though – Ain’t Nobody Cares, the sophomore offering from Paper Brain, sounds like it is.
Listening with your eyes closed, it’s impossible not to hear early Belle and Sebastian. The markers are unmistakable, the clean, simple electric guitars being the obvious one. In fact, Paper Brain sounds so much like so many other bands that “their” sound becomes confusing to pick apart. What did they take from whom? The vocals sound like which frontman?
To be generous, Paper Brain knew exactly what they were doing ahead of time. They wanted to incorporate their heroes and heroines. “If it were up to me,” Mike Wroblewski (guitars/vocals/bass) said, “we’d be playing with all vintage equipment; Moog synths, Wurlitzer electric pianos, any guitars or amps made in the ’60s/’70s just because I love the sound.” Alright. Fair play. The trends of today are built upon the guitars, Moogs, Wurlitzers of yesteryear, but if it’s nearly impossible to describe a band without comparisons, there’s a problem.
Listening to “Emily” is a step back in time. The song, melody and all, could have been scrawled by Lennon or McCartney. Mike Wroblewski is no Beatle. He sings slightly off-key most of the time, and his voice lacks warmth. Maybe vinyl would help, but I doubt it. “Ain’t Nobody Cares” bears resemblance to a Clash song – if it had teeth. You could see Joe Strummer bouncing out those chords, but the lackadaisical vocal delivery buries the song six feet under. Ain’t Nobody Cares supposedly has “musical surprises” that “linger” in its “earnest sound” according to a press release. I can’t argue with its earnestness. That’s between Paper Brain and their instruments; however, after listening to Ain’t Nobody Cares repeatedly, I’m wondering if this an Easter egg hunt without eggs, an example of Ecclesiastes 1:9.
Maybe it’s the sophomore slump (though I haven’t heard their debut). Their music isn’t wretched. It’s just not original. The bells tinkle delightfully on “IOU”. “Overgrown” would have made a great soundtrack addition to any slacker movie from 15 years ago (and I mean that in the best possible sense). There is one exception to the rule on Ain’t Nobody Cares: “Postman” has swaggering piano of the speakeasy variety filled out with tartish vocals from Jeni Wroblewski. Mae West would be proud. In fact, it’s impossible not to wonder why Ms. Wroblewski doesn’t take over mic duties more often. “Postman” shows flourishes of creativity and ingenuity.
While nostalgia might have some listeners reliving the glory days of several different decades, it can’t save Ain’t Nobody Cares. Buy Ain’t Nobody Cares if you love the ’90s. Buy it if you like the ’60s. Buy it if you love Belle and Sebastian, Pavement, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or any number of bands Paper Brain sounds like. Just don’t assume you’ll be listening to anything new, revolutionary, or salient to the future of indie pop.