It may sound like a contradiction, but “Random Universe,” the debut album by Portland band Serious Rooms, sounds old and new at the same time.
Actually, “old” may not be entirely accurate, as that implies a certain tired, dated quality, and the music of Serious Rooms is anything but. “Classic” is probably a better way to describe what the band has done. They’ve effortlessly distilled 40 years’ worth of pop rock influences into something that sounds totally fresh and contemporary, without sacrificing the great hooks and melodies that makes pop rock so much fun to listen to.
From the AM radio hits of the mid ’60s, to the nascent alternative scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, right through to the jangle pop of the mid ’90s, Serious Rooms covers all the bases. But make no mistake, this is no mere nostalgia trip; with deft songwriting and a knack for instantly hummable choruses, this band has crafted something timeless that is uniquely its own.
The ’60s influence is readily apparent on opening track “The Answers,” with the 12-string guitar immediately calling to mind the Byrds. There’s even a sitar! But, in keeping with Serious Rooms’ pop sensibilities, the sitar is subtle, more in line with something like the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby,” as opposed to something more psychedelic like say, “Green Tambourine.”
The band fast-forwards to the early ’70s on the uptempo “All of the Above,” a guitar-driven track that could almost be a great lost Raspberries tune. “Speak My Language” has a sun-tanned, mid-’70s southern California feel to it, perfectly complemented by a glossy studio sheen courtesy of drummer/producer John Nunan. The jaunty “Idle American” sounds like an uptempo Smiths number as sung by a young Elvis Costello, and the relaxed and shuffling “Dreaming In Real Time” and the reggae-infused “Won’t Be Afraid” both feature terrific guitar solos from Chris Plumstead.
Though not quite brimming with hooks like some of the other tunes, “Live Through This” is nevertheless one of the album’s standout tracks. In the hands of a less skilled band, this song could have easily turned into a maudlin, melancholy ballad, dragged down by its own weighty lyric. But a tender vocal from singer Sam Anderson, some smooth backing harmonies from his bandmates and a tinkling piano courtesy of guest keyboardist Matt Barnard help lighten the mood while still preserving the sweet sentiment.
The album’s title track is also one of its best songs. A myriad of influences come together on “Random Universe.” You can hear a bit of the Beatles in the melodic bass playing of Mark Mcdonough and the mellotron intro from John Nunan. Anderson sounds a little like XTC’s Andrew Partridge on this one, and the heady lyric is perfectly counterbalanced with buoyant Big Star-esque melodies.
But though the influences are readily apparent, don’t assume that Serious Rooms wears these influences on its sleeve. Think of them as subtle, respectful nods to the elders who came before, as the band forges ahead using that foundation to forge its own sound.
Lyrically, Serious Rooms tackles serious subjects. If there’s a theme to the album, it’s that life is random and unpredictable. There is no guiding hand, and no one has all the answers … and that’s perfectly OK.
John Lennon, when asked about the commercial appeal of “Imagine” despite its controversial lyrics, said, “Now I know what you have to do. Put your message across with a little honey.” Serious Rooms has done something similar with “Random Universe”: combined serious subjects with some of the sweetest melodies heard on any Portland release all year.
In the press release for the album, Sam Anderson says the band hoped to create “…a record that is both fresh and familiar sounding at the same time …something that would reward repeated listening, and sound as good years from now as it does today.”
Mission accomplished, Sam.
“Random Universe” is available at Bull Moose Music. Keep up with all the latest band news at facebook.com/seriousrooms.
Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host who lives in Westbrook. He can be reached at: