TEAM ME – To The Treetops!

Team Me provided 2011 with one of its best releases. The Norwegian indie-pop band’s self-titled EP may have displayed some obvious influences, but the overall mix of Flaming Lips, Polyphonic Spree and Arcade Fire-esque sounds resulted in a handful of really engaging songs.  The EP promised great things ahead, and while 2012’s ‘To The Treetops!’ also has its share of great songs, it is, perhaps, a little more of a mixed bag than it could have been.

This is partly down to the longer playing time allowing the band a greater luxury to stretch out.  Two of the album’s compositions – ‘Riding My Bicycle’ and ‘Favourite Ghost’ – clock in at a rather prog-rock friendly eight minutes plus.  In the case of ‘Favourite Ghost’, longer doesn’t always mean “better”, despite the more experimental slant.  Although its beginning lays down the foundations of a story, it really drags musically.  The vocals are just too breathy and the guitars too twee; the combination of both doesn’t give the listener much of interest to really latch on to.  By nearly four minutes in – despite the addition of some choir voices – not much has changed.  By four and a half minutes, just as you’re tempted to reach for the skip button, the band explodes into an instrumental flourish. Louder guitars, superbly crashy drums and some echoed wordless vocals lurking in the back all adding together to create something more substantial.  The second half wouldn’t have been able to stand alone, of course, just as the first could have dangerously sounded like filler material. After a while, these contrasting pieces – clearly glued from musical ideas created on separate occasions – sound like they belong together.  ‘Riding My Bicycle’ is much quirkier.  It’s first five minutes are a lovely example of what the band are all about – xylophones, booming drums and multi-layered vocals all present and correct – as the band powers their way through a piece of music which sounds like Wayne Coyne orchestrating Arcade Fire.  With a well-produced sound – both musically and vocally, and most definitely a product of studio environs – it would have been wise to leave it there.  The last three minutes reprise a couple of earlier musical themes while adding a few more electronic percussive bits, albeit presented in a far more ambling and disjointed fashion.  It’s almost possible to sense the band’s indecision on where (and when) to stop.  Despite this padding, the first five minutes or so provide one of a few album highlights.

The upbeat ‘Patrick Wolf & Daniel Johns’ offers another near perfect representation of the Team Me “sound”.  The pianos stab mercilessly in the intro before multi-layered vocals and a marching drum pull the listener through almost three minutes of unrepentant musical sunshine.  If you’re approaching this album after falling in love with the EP, ‘PW&DJ’ is everything you’d hoped for.  Choirs of vocals laying down the repeated refrain of “wake me up my love, wake me up right now” take just a couple of plays before lodging firmly in the memory, while the fairly cluttered arrangement manages to stay afloat without it’s combination of voices and percussion ever sounding overbearing.  Musically, it’s blend of power pop and indie rock is cool enough to make Wayne Coyne rethink the Flaming Lips’ sense of the absurd.  This is the sound of wonder: the sounds the ever-popular Lips could make if only they stopped trying to be deliberately madcap.  Slightly simpler, ‘Show Me’ offers more choirs on a track that’s so radio-friendly it borders on the ridiculous.  A mid paced riff collides with bell-like percussion and a great sense of melody.  Imagine Arcade Fire lightening their mood, channelling their poppiest side, and you’ll get a sense of what Team Me achieves on this particular number.

The intensely named ‘With My Hands Covering Both of My Eyes, I’m Too Scared To Have a Look at You Now’ is nowhere as musically anxious as its title implies.  In fact, it’s one of the album’s breeziest cuts – all tinkles, harmonising vocals and a retro synth that sounds like a bad 80s sci-fi soundtrack.  At first, there’s a sense of the musical arrangement disguising the hook, but eventually the title surfaces as part of a pop singalong which feels like it’s powered by sugar.  File next to ‘Show Me’ and ‘Weathervanes and Chemicals’ as a standalone example of Team Me at their most focused and absolute best.

While – as promised by the 2011 EP – ‘To The Treetops!’ is loaded with multi-layered, often enthusing pop nuggets, it’s not without a couple of musical mis-steps.  The four and half minute ‘Looking Through The Eyes of David Bewster’ is so heavily accented in the vocal department it makes the obvious Scandinavian pronunciation during The Wannadies’ cult classic ‘You & Me Song’ sound like cockney shouting. This, of course, is not a downfall in itself: beyond that, the music constantly threatens atmospherics and elements of an unsettling nature, but is largely inconsequential.  ‘Fool’ is musically tight, beginning with quietly played finger-picked strings accompanied by a breathy voice.  The choruses are fleshed out with some predictable choirs giving the sense of a building momentum, though it never quite takes hold.  At the point you’re expecting a huge climax, the band moves on to something else.  It’s by no means a bad track, just not quite as formed as Team Me are so obviously capable.  An obvious rhythmic similarity to the familiar ‘Weathervanes’ in the drum department (though nowhere else, especially) makes it sound a little lacking in inspiration.  This may be enough to hint, at least temporarily, Team Me could be a band with a limited selection of musical tricks: if they are in danger of ever resting on tried and tested musical themes, it’s lucky what they do can be so enjoyable.

Aside from the specifically written tunes, this album revisits a couple of Team Me’s earlier compositions.  These are, however, more than mere filler material.  A re-recorded ‘Weathervanes’ retains everything that was terrific about the original EP take but expands the percussion elements, resulting in a much fuller sound.  Similarly, ‘Dear Sister’ comes loaded with an extra few voices in the choir and a nice nod to new wave keyboard sounds during the closing moments.  Like ‘Weathervanes’ any changes are tasteful embellishments as opposed to a complete overhaul, but with the fuller sound and bigger budget, both tracks are improved.  For those already familiar with the first recordings of these numbers, their 2012 beefier counterparts show how the band have become a little more confident in their art; for other listeners, both numbers go some way to showing what the band can do at their best.  ‘Weathervanes and Chemicals’, particularly, stands alongside The Polyphonic Spree’s ‘Light & Day (Reach For The Sun) as one of choral/symphonic pop’s greatest achievements.

There are moments where the band loses a little focus or the songs are unnecessarily padded out, and in that respect, maybe ‘To The Treetops!’ is not quite the classic full-length debut some were hoping for.  Some of the musical pieces will require far more effort on behalf of the listener than the likes of ‘Dear Sister’ and ‘Weathervanes and Chemicals’ ever suggested, but stick with it all…you won’t be sorry.  Despite the not always warranted wandering moments, there’s more than enough gold standard material to be heard throughout this record to suggest Team Me are just as talented as some of their closest musical peers.

March 2012