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Wednesday, November 22, 2017 
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The Brunettes
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Mars Loves Venus
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The first release for New Zealand jukebox-pop revisionists The Brunettes was a seven-inch single called "Mars Loves Venus," the song — and the band at the time — telling the tale of Brunettes co-conspirators Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield, their lovin' love-in happily casting them as some sort of new-millennial Phil and Ronnie.  Six years later, they borrow the same title, and that title song, for their second longplayer; but with so much water under the bridge, here they evoke the same phrase with an entirely different intent. The first time around, when Bree and Mansfield were singing bubblegum jukebox odes with stars in their eyes, the fluttering eyelids didn't lie; the clashing lashes were merely flutterings mirroring the dum-dum-diddy of their fast-beating hearts.  By their debut disc, with this main couple having gone their separate ways off the court, the back-and-forth boy/girl exchanges had taken on a different quality, either reflecting their relationship at that stage, or playing out the kind of relationships these producers and their ingénues had back in the girl-group day, or, even, playing the naövete of the past against the cynicism of the present.  On that first album, Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks, Mansfield maintained the cutesy-pie girl-group spirit in her singing, whilst Bree acted more disaffected and detached, standing back at an all-knowing distance and taking a snide tone that, within the songs, went over the girl-with-the-curl's head. For their second album, they've borrowed the title of that first single, although, with this Mars Loves Venus, it's obvious how times have changed — wholly from those salad days, sure, but even greatly from that first-up longplayer.

Here, the female voice is brought forward into the (post-) modern day, talking from an empowered now of self-help speak (hence the Mars and Venus of the title) and girl-power catchphrases.  So, then, when, in "Leonard Says," when the girl tries to cheer her depressed boy, her perkiness isn't devoted and eternal, responding to his day-to-day despondence ("I sure don't want to be 30-something and work in a record store... paranoid I'm just getting bitter and old") with a defined, quietly defiant stand: "Please don't scare me like that ever again/ I won't be an audience for you self-oppression/ And if you wanna be my lover/ You've gotta get with my friends."  True to such, when Bree takes on a teasing tone, here, he gets an immediate reaction.  "These Things Take Time" begins with Mansfield honking out some rudimentary clarinet, which leads to the boy/girl lyrical swapping "These things take time, like learning the clarinet/'You know I'm trying but I'm so impatient'/ It's getting better, week by week you hardly ever squeak/ 'Yeaaaahhh, whatever!'"  Later, "Your Heart Dies" finds his "not everyone's lawn gets mowed twice a week" met by an aggressive "what's that supposed to mean?" from her. It's that same song that finds them happily recalling their relationship (together, in harmony) as "Once you were a trophy for me/ As luck would have it, I, a trophy for you": taking that old-fashioned convention of the smart guy with the pretty wife and twisting it to fit modern social conventions, the smart people who're just as swayed by prettiness, finding mutual trophy-wife-isms in each other.  At that point of the song — the closing track on this disc — all suddenly stops; and, in the silence, Mansfield whispers, in her New Zealand accent (which counters the deliberate faux-Americanism of Bree's crooning), "It's unavoidable, it just happens; when you grow up, your heart dies."

So, yes, whilst The Brunettes spend so much of their time evoking the '60s — as viewed through the prism of Shadow Morton's teenaged pop-song soap-operas — they did come of age in the '80s, and echoing one of the signature lines from John Hughes's teenaged motion-picture soap-opera "The Breakfast Club" shows that much. Placed in this context, its sentiments go hand in hand with the ideas of struggling to grow up, and cultivating nostalgia for one's youth that were addressed in "Leonard Says" (these two of the many songs on the album to evoke the "movies" in some form).  Taken, as whole, it seems to speak of Bree's discomfort at making eternally-youthful music when he himself is aging.  Having lived the rock-'n'-roll teenaged-rebellion life, starting the first rarely-spoken-of incarnation of The Brunettes when he was 14, Bree now finds himself, at 25, drifting away from an age where he can legitimately identify with teenaged soap-operas. That the Brunettes have been able to grow to take in all of these growing-up feelings speaks volumes of their take on pop music, the combo less a novelty act than an exploration of the then-and-now of popular song, the then-and-now of the songwriter's life, and the then-and-now of the songwriters' entwined lives.


by Anthony Carew




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