Welcome, ladies and gents, to ‘Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum’, bought to you by a bunch guys better known for the colours of their skinny ties than their names. Collectively, the guys in ties are Tally Hall – a power pop/college rock ensemble from Michigan.
The opening number ‘Good Day’ (winner of the 2004 John Lennon Scholarship Competition) brings many classic power pop influences to the fore: take Ben Folds’s piano, Jellyfish’s knack for a catchy melody and Sugarbomb’s instant pop-friendliness, add a twisted barber-shop choir of multi-tracked vocals, and essentially, you’ve got what makes up the heart of this opening track and the main thrust what drives the handful of good tracks on the album. ‘Taken for a Ride’ recalls the stompy elements of ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ (as well as utilising the Sparky’s Magic Piano vocal noises) and despite my abject hatred of most of ELO’s work, have to concede that this works well. The slow section near the end of the song reminds me of The Polyphonic Spree, which is especially pleasing.
‘Greener’ makes excellent use of spiky rhythm guitars and occasional Cars-style keyboards; the chorus isn’t quite as hooky as some of the other material, but once again for power pop connoisseurs, it ticks enough of the boxes. The slower ‘Just Apathy’ is the album’s most mature piece of songwriting; its style of adult pop is far more in the Ben Folds camp, but even so, is still very much welcomed among the power pop elements here. Another great number, ‘Two Wuv’, features a riff that sounds like ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ coupled with an arrangement which sounds like a Weezer cast-off. Bass-led verses with obsessive lyrics eventually give way to a chorus with multi tracked vocals. A sugary hook completes the picture during this slightly wrong ode to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. This tale of unrequited love with a major quirk brings me nicely onto the rest of the album’s tunes.
In addition to the bits of power pop goodness, the band have recorded another half a dozen songs which are so annoying I’m almost at a loss for words. It’s hard to know with the album’s quirkier stuff whether Tally Hall are playing things for laughs or not – and I really hope they are. ‘Welcome To Tally Hall’, mixes bad rap elements with a casio keyboard – think Barenaked Ladies meets Hot Action Cop and you might have some idea where we are. The multi tracked vocals on the chorus sections are quite pleasing, but it’s not enough to stop me reaching for the skip button most of the time. ‘Banana Man’ is a Harry Belafonte inspired calypso, complete with funny vocal (look, if it’s not Harry Shearer doing this on the soundtrack for A Mighty Wind, it’s not happening, okay? And you can keep your banana). The mid section goes a little Barenaked Ladies again, but if you haven’t tried to claw your ears off by that point I’d be surprised. ‘The Bidding’ offers one of the worst misfires, matching an R‘n’B style vocal (that’s the 21st century soul/dance rubbish ‘n’ bollocks, as opposed to rhythm and blues) with occasional bursts of rock guitar. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to hear ‘Haiku’ ever again, either – Hawaiian inspired calypso music which sounds like a blatent Barenaked Ladies rip off was one of the last things this experience needed.
For those looking for excellent examples of power pop, ‘Marvin’ offers a handful of really great songs; likewise for those who like albums with surprises (I’m trying not to use the word novelty here) then it’s a museum of musical curios. This album has been likened to Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ elsewhere on the net. That’s a little bit of a lazy comparison; where ‘Smile’ acted as a musical soundtrack to one man’s well-documented breakdown, ‘Marvin’s’ is has far fewer sinister undertones. …But that’s not to say it’s necessarily fun.
A frustrating album, indeed: it’s novelty elements are sure to frustrate all but the most tolerant of power pop fans, and yet those who appreaciate Tally Hall purely on a quirky, superficial level probably won’t appreciate the quality of songcraft featured during the album’s two or three great tunes. What were they thinking? More importantly, what were Atlantic Records thinking when they picked this up three years after it was first released and then added new bits and smoothed out the edges? Surely a waste of time and resources…
I would have much preferred it if they’d concentrated on making more music in the vein of ‘Good Day’ and ‘Two Wuv’. If they had, this album could have been a power-pop classic.