When the Deer Wore Blue
or some reason, the Figurines’ last album—the critically noted and agreeable Skeleton—almost gave me the hives. God knows why—music is a strange and ineffable thing, even when it’s mundane, and for some reason I found myself inexplicably hating this set of beaming, uncomplicated indie-pop songs. (It was probably misdirected frustration over my then-girlfriend, or something.) Surprised by my virulent reaction to such affable music, I spent some time with it, trying to figure what I was responding to. During that time, the hooks wormed their way into my brain and sooner or later I gave up trying to figure why I supposedly “hated” Skeleton and grudgingly realized that I had listened to it more than any other album in my collection for about two weeks.
Listening to their follow-up When the Deer Wore Blue, which is by turns hauntingly beautiful, gratingly twee, and sweetly catchy, I think I’ve figured out what it was I was reacting to. They pen gorgeous melodies, but the Figurines can be irritatingly fey. If your ideal band frontman is an overly literate, emotionally damaged and physically frail 12-year-old English schoolboy, then the Figurines are probably your favorite new band.
Lead Figurine Christian Hjelm avoids raw emotion at every turn, offering lightly quizzical catchphrases like “Will you get what you wanted in the afternoon?” Even when he sings “It breaks me to see you cry” he sounds so mannered that the emotion hinted at by the words never arrives. The atmosphere is similar to a Wes Anderson film—whimsical, affected, and redolent of confectioner’s sugar. The finished product is unassailable, but also oddly remote.
If you can get past all the arch pretension, When the Deer Wore Blue rewards you with plenty of tunes. The stacked vocal harmonies of “The Air We Breathe” split the difference between the Beatles’ “Because” and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, while the relaxed, open-air jangle of “Let’s Head Out” favorably recalls the Frames. Opener “Childhood Verse” explores a more cavernous, less twee sound, with booming pianos and chimes and alternating sections in place of a verse and chorus.
On “Drunkard’s Dream,” probably the biggest stylistic stretch on the album, they stiffly hack away at a blues riff, sounding like the Pixies attempting to cover Billy Squier; the sound is rigid and awkward. Neverthless, they hit upon a vocal hook to hang the song on. Such pleasures are hit or miss, and add up to an album about as rewarding and frustrating as Skeleton. Ultimately, the band’s name suggests everything you need to know: something small-scale and finely wrought, both fragile and precious.