It’s plain that the Quad Cities’ Einstein’s Sister put a lot of work into Humble Creatures precisely because it doesn’t sound like it. It could scarcely go down more easily. Anybody who finds this self-released gem will treasure it for a long time, with good reason.
Following up the well-regarded Learning Curves (which received favorable notices in Goldmine and Performing Songwriter, among other publications) was not easy, said singer Bill Douglas. “When you get back to square one, starting over, it’s a little daunting at first,” he said of the process of writing and recording the new album.
“It was a lot of work,” added guitarist-singer Kerry Tucker. “There was this pressure.”
While making Learning Curves was a way to wash out the bitter taste of a bad indie-label experience and rediscover the fun of making music, the new record brought expectations – from fans, critics, and the band itself. “I don’t think it affected the way we performed,” Tucker said. “Those things disappeared once the record button was hit.”
In the noble tradition of power pop, Humble Creatures combines the volume and seeming simplicity of The Smithereens with the smarts and slightly off-kilter sensibilities of Elvis Costello. (The vocal similarities between Douglas and Costello are striking, but it seems less mimicry than coincidence.)
On Humble Creatures, Douglas and Tucker march their able band through 10 varied, hooky, well-articulated songs. Even the remaining throw-away track “Big Brother Eye,” a child-sung ditty of elliptical wordplay backed by piano, nails it. It’s just long enough to do its job – as a nice lead-in to “Hey Napoleon” – and just short enough to prevent annoyance. (It also contains the winning, if nonsensical, line: “Mr. Dow Jone [sic] tripping on the taste of NASDAQ pie.”)
If “Big Brother Eye,” the third track, announces Humble Creatures as out-of-the-ordinary, “Hey Napoleon” shows it to be extraordinary. The song, a bass-heavy slow boogie, stops and shifts several times without losing any momentum.
“This Won’t Be Home Someday” picks up the pace, with bassist Andrew Brock once again leading the band with his hyper lines.
“Beloved Infidel” is one of Humble Creatures’ two ballads, and it threatens to get away from the band with its emotional lyrics and delivery but is anchored by a haunting, melancholic piano. Similarly, the earnest, borderline-sappy lyrics of “Something True” are nicely balanced with steady vocal performance and nice acoustic guitar.
“Something True” fades into some background noise, and symphonic strings build right into my favorite song, “Never Can Tell.” Some spy-movie riffs and shuffles provide a firm foundation but give Douglas plenty of room for vocal maneuvers.
The lyrics are generally strong, with nice turns of phrase and wry, concise observations. Some of the album’s first words are “a smile of lemon cream,” and the rest are nearly as good. The lyrics have a casual smarts, never forced.
If there are complaints, they’re pretty damned minor: The word “subjugate,” for one, does not belong in any music; its domain is music reviews, as in: “Einstein’s Sister does not subjugate its intelligence in the four-minute pop format.” And while the guitar work is strong, the unobtrusive but rote solos generally feel like they don’t belong.
The sound of Humble Creatures is a little more muscular than the previous record. Power pop, Tucker said, “is like eating the sugar at the bottom of the cereal bowl” – it tastes good but gets old quickly. That’s why the band toughened up its sound a bit.
Selling the record is the next challenge. Learning Curves has sold more than 1,000 copies, on the back of good publicity and the Internet. Tucker said he hopes Humble Creatures sells 1,000 copies by February.
Those numbers aren’t huge, but it doesn’t feel like much of problem. Einstein’s Sister has captured the joy of making music so well – the record sounds ecstatic just to be alive – that it almost doesn’t matter whether anybody hears it or not. It exists, it lives, and that’s all that really counts.
Tucker said he’d be happy “if two people buy the album, as long as they really like it.”
Einstein’s Sister’s Humble Creatures will be in stores October 24. The band will have a CD-release party Friday, October 20, at RIBCO. Big Backyard opens. Einstein’s Sister will also perform at the Moline Coõp store on October 26 at 7:30 p.m. and at the Family Museum of Arts & Science for Scarecrow Shenanigans on October 28 at 6 p.m.