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California dreaming
Dublinís Thrills embrace the American West

The Thrillsí So Much for the City (Virgin), the debut album by this shaggy-haired quintet from Dublin, just might be the most resolutely American album made by a bunch of Europeans since the Rolling Stones littered 1978ís Some Girls (Virgin) with references to New York City, Bakersfield, and the White House lawn. Having never heard of these guys before catching a late-night video for their single "One Horse Town" on MTV and then picking up the bandís disc (with no press kit to tip me off), I assumed the Thrills were from California. After all, the opening "Santa Cruz (Youíre Not That Far)" is part homage, part mantra, to that small Northern California city. The second track is the buoyant, banjo-and-organ-layered "Big Sur." The third: "Donít Steal Our Sun." The eighth? "Hollywood Kids." The closing " íTil the Tide Creeps In" mentions surfing and name-checks San Diego. An unlisted hidden track refers to LA in the first verse. Okay, thereís also a breezy number called "Your Love Is like Las Vegas," but I thought that was an anomaly ó something maybe one of the dudes wrote after a summer road trip.

Itís clear that the four months the Thrills spent in San Diego before recording City made as much of an impact as all that hanging out Mick did in the Big Apple and Studio 54 back in the í70s. In fact, one wonders whether the plangent Laurel Canyon vibe the band nail so completely and effortlessly throughout has everything to do with the Thrillsí being a band of young outsiders looking in ó untarnished, starry-eyed romantics steeped in the myth of a sun-dappled Golden West, gazing through the lens of a California absorbed from old Buffalo Springfield and Jackson Browne albums and filtered through latter-day cosmic slackers like Beachwood Sparks and Pavement. True, thereís a bittersweet couplet in "Big Sur" ó "Hey, hey, youíre the Monkees/People said you monkeyed around/But nobodyís listening now" ó that suggests the Thrills are well aware that the fantasy theyíve embraced is a shiny Hollywood bauble, that the California Dream is an artificial construct, as fleeting as it is enticing. Or maybe theyíve just listened to a lot of Monkees: the Nashville-by-way-of LA jingle "Say It Ainít So" could easily pass for a Mike Nesmith tune.

It remains to be seen whether the Thrills themselves turn out to be the real thing or just another kind of bauble, a piece of pretty packaging for the moment with a name and studiously unkempt haircuts that fit well right now. Either way, City is a cohesive album that hits consistent pop peaks, and the Thrillsí apparent disinterest in carbon-copying the downtown sounds of Strokes or the fractured garage blues of the White Stripes bodes well. That they also kicked off their American tour at the Paradise a week ago last Monday with a loose-limbed but confident 60-minute set that didnít feel canned also suggests that they just might be around for a while.

Singer/guitarist Conor Deasy is the physical focal point of his bandís strengths and embodies their crossover potential: heís got the kind of shambling, strong-jawed good looks and careless charisma the rock mainstream ó not to mention Fox sit-com executives ó tends to like but also a vocal style quirky enough to draw comparison with the Flaming Lipsí Wayne Coyne or Clem Snideís Eef Barzelay. Itís the kind of left-of-center voice indie-rock fans lean closer to hear. Deasy slouched forward to meet them Monday night, leaning askew on his microphone stand, clad in thrift-shop threads that included a new-wave vinyl jacket and hastily knotted necktie. He exhorted audience members to clap their hands during the sunny urgency of "Santa Cruz," then dished out a helping of harmonica and drawled the words, Malkmus-like, to the loping, ersatz country of "Hollywood Kids" as the rest of the band brought up the rear, dragging the beat behind them. Elsewhere, the combo cheerfully scuffed up the melodic sheen and hooky simplicity of "One Horse Town," which opened with an intro of noisy, Who-ish power chords and then rode atop Kevin Horanís bed of burbling organ and its own fizzy momentum, an approach that was thoroughly in keeping with the songís theme of escaping stasis and slow death brought on by settling down to a house full of in-laws.

If anything, the messier, roughed-up treatment gave the material a more adventurous edge and imbued the songs with a restless energy that doesnít always come across on the disc. A couple of brand new numbers sounded great too, and during one of them, Deasy name-checked New York City with a hint of wonder, as if he were looking toward the bright lights of the big city with faraway eyes. Maybe Manhattanís next.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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