Are You the Sick Passenger?, King Radio's first full-length release in
six years, is a glorious boy-loses-girl mini-symphony. The album begins with
a trilling morning song of busy signals, electronic blooms and bird sounds, then
evens out into indie-rock guitar and utterly alone lyrics. Both the inwardness
of the writing and the low-key vocal delivery are reminiscent of Dump, the experimental
home recording project of Yo La Tengo's James McNew. The quality of this album
will not surprise those who have followed the band's undersung fineness since Mr.
K Is Dead Go Home, its 1998 debut, or even since King Radio mainman
Frank Padellaro's part in the Scud Mountain Boys' un-ironic '70s alt-country
King Radio's story is not one of parting with one style only to take up with another, however. Padellaro is much more interesting than that. Mr. K Is Dead Go Home played up new-wave chords and smart-strange lyrics. A few years later The Mission Orange EP invited comparisons to some of the newer entries in the pop resurgence, including Mayflies USA and Bigger Lovers. Are You the Sick Passenger?, although as affecting, does not attempt to rival the felt grandiloquence of the High Llamas, a British band led by Sean O'Hagan who, during the '90s, appeared to impart everything that was stylish, experimental and responsive about orchestral pop.
Padellaro is equally conversant with the bareness of such songwriters as Elliott
Smith and East River Pipe (AKA F.M. Cornog) and the stately, finished pop
perhaps best epitomized by the mid-to-late-'60s recordings of the Beach Boys
and The Beatles.
with ample strings, vibes and slipper-like vocals, Are You the Sick Passenger? offers
a somewhat less sunny measure of that loveliness, assisted by Mitch Easter and
producer Peter Baldwin, whose own recordings with his band Hercules are an ideal
pairing for the sophisticated depth here. The orchestra, though not huge, sounds
statuesque, with each note pillowed and tended to. The result approaches the
same grand arrangements and lyrical intimacy of such stylists as Burt Bacharach,
whose mondaine appeal is apparent here.
What makes Are You the Sick Passenger? so engaging is that it doesn't sound like any other contemporary recording. Delightfully out of time with its array of airy, vintage instrumentation (including a fetching 1930s Smith-Corona), King Radio also make interesting selections when it comes to cover material: for example, "Intermission," a kitschy, game-show-like cutaway from the noted composer and arranger Marvin Hamlisch, whose first hit was Lesley Gore's "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows." Whether the curio fits in alongside the rest of the record's material is a question of taste; however, the piped-in bubbliness of the instrumental affair is admittedly infectious.
"Am I the Same Girl?" is the second and more aligned cover choice. Elsewhere "Famous Umbrellas," with its rhyme of "Lydia" with "city-a," suggests an affinity with Cole Porter. And there are even some New Order guitar lines circa their Factory Records period. "Mystery fellas with famous umbrellas/ And places to go with their faces that nobody knows / Mystery fellas with famous umbrellas and dames you suppose could've come from the evening shows."
"Busman's Holiday," a workaday calliope of organ, flute and tiny splashes of cymbal, recalls the bouncy, sing-along element of Sgt. Pepper contributions: "It's a complimentary stay that makes me take this bus away/ Put the saucers on a tray, and make me take this bus away/ I'm a fool to even try/ With all my hard luck stories that I do my best to find with my ordinary mind."
"Pistil and the Stamen," a literate chiding for just going along, is one of the
best and most lilting examples of Padellaro's artful appraisal throughout: "Look out for guys who think they're rulers/ I was an inch away from that/ Look out for guys who think the answer's Hey/ Illuminati seem to taunt your every turn/ Hanging at Denny's pretending you're famous." A
demure flute blunts the smart-smart admonishments somewhat, but not entirely
(as do Padellaro's reclusive vocals).
King Radio prove that the well-versed often make the best purists. (Remember
lush cinema of Jim O'Rourke's Eureka?) Are You the Sick Passenger? delicately
renders the emotional moment, like how it hurts to remember too soon. Here it
just feels like a summer's day.