The Ladybug Transistor

Oct 29, 2003 at 12:00 am

Pretty much anything on long-running indie Merge — owned and operated by two members of Superchunk — is worth owning, and the fifth studio album from Brooklyn’s Ladybug Transistor doesn’t break the label’s streak. It does, however, represent a significant break in the combo’s modus operandi; for the first time, the Ladybugs ventured outside their back yard to record, traveling to the desert of Tucson where the venerable Wavelab Studios, midwife to classic platters by Giant Sand, Calexico, Neko Case, Richard Buckner and many others, is located.

The change in geography and climate clearly yielded a change in temperament, for while the group’s signature sound — an immaculately crafted blend of ’60s-ish baroque pop — remains intact, there’s a more energetic, outgoing viewpoint. To be honest, at this stage in the game way too many indiesters are indiscriminately cribbing from the Brian Wilson, Left Banke, Zombies and Burt Bacharach songbooks, and LT was probably in danger of disappearing down a twee-pop hobbit hole (all calculated style, but no soul or substance) had it continued on its insular course. Here, though, songs such as the “Pretty Ballerina”-esque “In December” or the Pet Sounds-y “The Places You’ll Call Home” breathe new life into the genre, the former’s Day-Glo colorburst propelled by a twangy guitar and a churning surf bass line and the latter’s neo-orchestral vibe slowly giving way to an exuberant slice of fuzzy psychedelia. (It also features some über-sexy mic turns from Sasha Fadyl, subbing for the group’s main vocalist and songwriter, baritone-throated, Kevin Ayers disciple Gary Olson.) Throw in an unexpected country-folk reading of the Jackie DeShannon chestnut “Splendor In The Grass,” with Paul Niehaus, from Lambchop, guesting on empathetic pedal steel, and you’ve got one of the sweetest guilty pleasures you’ll dare to clutch to your bosom all year.

E-mail Fred Mills at [email protected].