Sunday, October 4, 2009

Album Review: Tippy Canoe (but no Tyler)

On one song, it's jaunty country-rock. On another, it's '80s power pop. '60s girl-group styles dominate elsewhere, leaving Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and Latin motifs to be explored on still other tracks.

And that's just the sound of this album.

Tippy Canoe & the Paddlemen are not exactly your typical indie-pop band. Parasols & Pekingese (Late Bloomers Works) is not exactly your typical indie-pop album.

Aside from the Randy Newman-ish "Monday Night Man," on which guitarist Mikie Lee Prasad takes the lead, the focal point of this record is girl-with-ukulele (were you expecting "guitar"?) Michele Kappel-Stone -- that's Tippy Canoe to you, thank you very much! Her songwriting is multifaceted, to say the least. She delves into the rich history of popular music with glee, but displays a thoroughly contemporary attitude with songs like "Mood-ish Me," whose lyrics include "Did I conjure you to saw me in half?" and "Kick my ass for my own sake."

I have to stop and let you digest that one.

Tippy is quite good at taking unexpected left turns and juxtaposing seemingly contradictory moods. "Champs-Elysees" has a bouncy melody and paints cheerful pictures of gumdrops falling on the street, yet it climaxes on a snarky "Ha ha joke's on you!" refrain. "Sleep, Sleep My Dear" is a chilling, macabre lullaby, but she sounds undeniably sexy dragging out its syllables in that robust voice of hers: "Sleeeeeeep, sleeeeeeep, my dee-heeeeeeeeeeeear......"

That voice is a captivating instrument, with an almost operatic lilt and a sweetness offset by Ms. Canoe's tendency to hit the notes ever-so-imperfectly. Instead of making her sound like a clueless American Idol hopeful, her natural imprecision brings nuances out of the notes, each tonal variation contributing to the memorability of the performances.

There's only one real complaint I have about the album, which is that the recording quality could stand improvement. I try to be forgiving of such things when it comes to independent and small-label releases because they are often made on a shoestring budget (if even that much). But at certain points on Parasols, Tippy's voice is somewhat buried in the mix and one must listen especially carefully to make out her lyrics. This is particularly true on "Mass Transmissions," an otherwise solid commentary on the culture wars we wage every day: "We hold so dear our warring contradictions, and often times they're just two sides of the same coin."

Michele is from Baltimore and is now based in Oakland, keeping a busy tour schedule when she can. Having seen her when she swung through Philly recently, I can tell you that she is a delight live and she plays a mean ukulele. If you get Parasols and Pekingese, be prepared for one of the most unusual -- and most interesting -- pop albums you've ever heard.

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