“High Notes” is an appropriate title for the lead single off La Sera’s latest album, Music for Listening to Music To. The group, headed by former Vivian Girls bassist Katy Goodman, consistently produces dreamy pop punk, but looks on this record to achieve something less ethereal. The album was written and produced at a time of transition for Goodman and her band — it features her newlywed husband Todd Wisenbaker, and was produced under the prestigious guidance of Ryan Adams. The result is an earnest release comprised of solid songs that wake the band up from dream pop fatigue and provide something a bit more incisive.
La Sera are at their strongest when gracefully skirting the edges of a genre, and this is highlighted perfectly by Adams’ production. This balance is his greatest contribution to the release, but Adams also highlights a stronger folk element throughout. In fact, many of these songs are tinged with the Americana feel of his own music. Music for Listening to Music To echoes early Jenny Lewis releases, a promising omen for Goodman’s career.
Instrumentally, this album is a slight evolution of La Sera’s heavy, guitar punk. There’s more texture to the guitar, which works well for slower tracks like “Take My Heart” and “Too Little Too Late”. With less clutter surrounding her, the longing in Goodman’s voice can stand tall at the center. The album’s pacing differs from past releases as well: While the band had opted for short, upbeat tracks, these songs (though still bite-sized) often linger slowly, savoring every moment. The Smiths influence is more evident than ever — the jangling guitar lines evoke Meat is Murder era Johnny Marr, and Goodman’s voice often hits a Morrissey-like tone.
The silly album title actually gets to the album’s heart, an undeniable charm in the campiness, as on the round-up rodeo feel of “High Notes”. It gets a little heavy-handed when the harmonica solo chimes in toward the end, but it’s still too fun to complain. Sometimes, though this can feel a bit too indulgent, even overly cute. Often, this comes when Goodman’s vocals are more stylized, a trick that worked well in the past as a contrast with their punk core. Yet here, on some of their glossier songs, it fails the emotional aspect of their work, causing the album to drag toward the middle.
The duller moments on the album don’t undermine its successes. In fact, there are fits and bursts of real genius. The newlyweds trading vocal duties is a sweet touch that also provides a further reprieve from the dreamy sound. The slower, vintage feel of these songs pairs nicely with Goodman’s voice, which is pushed to its limits and is ultimately more affecting than on past albums. The lyrics are more thoughtful, less concerned with pop catchiness and more with catharsis.
At the very least, the album is a sign that La Sera are making a move away from punk side project to something more sustainable. Hopefully, as Goodman approaches a more folk-infused sound and leaves behind some of her sea-breeze punk roots, the rebellious heart will remain central in her music. Music for Listening to Music To is also subject to some of La Sera’s usual pitfalls, and ultimately is a bit lacking in variety. Yet as the band digs deeper into the foundation of their sound, this album points to them finding more gold in the future. In every sense, this is a smart, confident step forward for La Sera.
Essential Tracks: “High Notes”