Pet Lions' Houses is the sound of a risk paying off. Listen to the Chicago quartet's first LP back to back with their 2009 introductory EP Soft Right, and it's clear that over the past two years they have been working to push their music into deeper and more adventurous places. While the EP was centered around generally straightforward indie pop, Houses introduces an artier, more atmospheric twist. Pet Lions know how to write a power pop song, so Soft Right was a strong release that worked well and gained the band quite a few fans. They could have easily left well enough alone and made an entire album's worth of similar material, but instead decided to experiment with their basic sound and add a significant layer of depth to both the songwriting and production. Wisely, they experimented without sacrificing the pop elements that made them so likable to begin with, and striking a perfect balance resulted in a truly impressive record.
This time around, atmosphere is just as important as hooks. Bright, straightforward production worked nicely for summery Soft Right tracks such as "Roman History" and "Stuck at the Bottom," but the material on Houses relies on a haziness that hangs over all 10 tracks. It's not muddy or suffocating, but it's a ways away from direct thanks to production by Neil Strauch at Chicago's Engine Studios. This is a major part of the album's identity and one if it's greatest strengths. It differentiates Pet Lions' sound from the indie pop standard.
Houses opens with "The English Room," which sets the mood well. It's a song with a grand scope; one that builds slowly and intimately with guitar and some relaxed vocals from frontman Karl Østby before sweeping you away with a sea of noises. "When I Grow Old" is as close as the album gets to Soft Right, with a jaunty rhythm and singalong hooks. Two highlights that follow are "Comeback" and "Slow Wave," the former a dream pop-power pop hybrid and the latter a chilled-out, keyboard heavy gem. Also worth noting are are the lively "Mexican Cigarettes" (which takes a surprising turn with a second half that features some excellent layered vocal harmonies), the unexpected Bossa nova of "Sleeping," and "Trinidad," one of the earliest and most infectious Pet Lions tracks, which existed previously as a demo and is given a makeover here to gel with the vibe on the rest of the album.
As with any risk, Houses could have missed the mark. Pet Lions could have altered their sound so much that they would have lost their basic identity. Luckily, they avoided any pitfalls by making just the right choices in deciding which parts to expand upon and which to leave alone, and in the process, have become an even more exciting band.
'Houses' is out on May 10. In the meantime, you can listen to "When I Grow Old" below and stream the entire album on Pet Lions' Bandcamp site. The band are having a record release show at Lincoln Hall on Saturday, May 14 (also with The Changes and Santah; 10 p.m., $10, 18 and over). Tickets here.
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