Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Lightheaded - Combustible Gems


What are the best tracks on Combustible Gems, the new album by New Jersey's Lightheaded? We would nominate tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. You may dismiss such a statement as a cop out when discussing an album with eight tracks, but here is the deal: We a fans of indie pop. And when we listen to an album that sounds like the most knowledgeable DJ has curated a list of unknown guitar pop diamonds that spans Glasgow twee, New Zealand strum and jangle, '60s craftsman hooks and vocals, '80s and '90s British guitar pop, current San Francisco pop renaissance and lots more, we damn well are going to embrace it wholeheartedly. So there you are. Check out a few charming earworms below and then decide whether you want digital, vinyl or CD formats. Combustible Gems is out now via Slumberland Records.

Lightheaded are Sarah Abdlebarry (guitar), Stephen Stec (guitar), Cynthia Rickenbach (bass) (apologies to the drummer as we don't have his name).

Bandcamp for Combustible Gems

Sarah Abdlebarry (guitar), Stephen Stec (guitar), Cynthia Rickenbach (bass) (apologies to the drummer as we don't have his name).

Lightheaded are, simply, a great pop group. Their songs are full of melody and harmony, are bittersweet and memorable, familiar yet original. Their sound is a perfect mix of jangling guitars -- featuring Sarah Abdlebarry's exquisite, tasteful, but punchy Gretsch lead played over Stephen Stec's Rickenbacker chime -- anchored to singer Cynthia Rickenbach's Hofner Violin bass, which sounds like the bass on Michel Polnareff's first LP.

"Hugging Horizons" is the Sound of Young New Jersey. It's soul music, but by experimenting and playing around, they have accidentally invented some sort of New New Pop. "Because of You" ends the album on a real high, featuring Johnny Marr style guitar and some gorgeous strings. It's poignant and sophisticated, but still eager, slightly gauche even. And as always refreshingly, wonderfully, naively sincere.

Combustible Gems is a jump into the sparkling blue water, excited experimentation, exploration, finding themselves, with the effervescence of youth that makes for great debut LPs. It has the youthful urgency of Comet Gain, the wide-eyed nostalgia of early Orange Juice, the suss and anti-macho swagger of those early Pastels singles. It yearns for something, it is an exciting, stumbling, falling, laughing , charming, great pop debut.

New Jersey band Lightheaded make indie pop that casts a wide net. Their 2023 EP, Good Good Great!, was five songs that moved quickly from dour jangle pop to '60s-informed instrumentation that called to mind the chamber pop sweetness of the Beach Boys or the folksy sensibility of the Byrds. There were even hints of the reverb-saturated wave of dark pop that reigned supreme on the earliest Captured Tracks releases. All of these touchstones are revisited and expanded upon with Lightheaded's proper debut album, Combustible Gems. Every song takes a slightly different approach while maintaining a consistent songwriting aesthetic, which makes for an album of colorfully diverse highlights that doesn't feel too piecemeal. The production is deep and defined, also, giving the synths of opening track "Always Sideways" a little extra sparkle and the naive 12-string leads of "Dawn Hush Lullaby" an added push that wasn't there on the EP. Vocalist Cynthia Rittenbach's performances have a balance of drive and restraint that calls to mind twee standard-bearers like Camera Obscura or Belle & Sebastian, as the instrumentals shift between twinkly, acoustic, Smiths-y melodrama on "Still Sitting Sunday," mod-tinged peppiness-meets-Sarah Records shakiness on "Bright Happy Girls," cavernous synth arpeggios and gothy harmonies on "Hugging Horizons," and other interpretations of melodic and sensitive indie sounds. Erin Turner's violin arrangements add the final touch that makes Combustible Gems an exceptional entry in the indie rock pantheon. Closing track "Because of You (3 Sundays)" puts Turner's strings in the foreground, with graceful waves of violin harmonies sharing space with surfy guitar lines and aching vocal arrangements. While Combustible Gems is only a few tunes longer than Lightheaded's previous EP (with eight songs total), the band packs every song with ideas and sounds that are tastefully crafted and always changing. Even for as intricate as the album's construction is, it's assembled with a touch so light that it creates an easy, repeatable listening experience. Combustible Gems is a striking debut, on par with some of the work that informed it in a continuum of gorgeously imperfect indie pop.

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