Should time-travel ever make the quantum leap from fantasy to reality, California’s Mini Mansions have earned themselves a ticket back to the birth of psychedelic pop with their dreamy second album, ‘The Great Pretenders’. Playing like a soundtrack of the future as imagined by a baby-boomer brain, Mini Mansions repay their debt to pop with a release that brings as much to the table as it borrows, exploring a brave new world without remaining tied to history.
On first listen, it’s easy to hear the common interests shared between the three Mini Mansioners – the theatricality of Electric Light Orchestra; the Beatles at their most trippy; 80s new wave – and like them, ‘The Great Pretenders’ doesn’t bury its cinematic tendencies subtly, but embraces it. The opening line-up, an irresistible ten minutes of Hollywood sci-fi, evokes a time when pop reigned supreme and songwriters were as revered as the performers. Dig your nails in further though, and a villainous streak begins to appear from beneath the glossy facade – the undead-glam that is ‘Fantasy’; the B-movie horror of ‘Death is a Girl’. Even ‘Heart of Stone’ gets a case of the spooks when the theremin pops up, the staple instrument for a nice kitsch haunting. Think an Addams Family affair, rather than a Manson one.
Listeners tempted by the bright lights of Mini Mansions’ side work – most notably, that Michael ‘Mikey Shoes’ Shuman is a fully-fledged Queen of the Stone Age – may find it a stretch to make the connections, although they’d surely enjoy what they discover. There are moments of resemblance – ‘Mirror Mountains’ especially – but they’d have to look towards the stranger cuts on ‘…Like Clockwork’ for further proof.
It’s the guest list, however, that really gets the flashbulbs popping – Brian Wilson and Alex Turner are both Fairly Big Deals – and it’s a relief that neither of them sound like they’ve phoned it in. Turner, balancing somewhere between a Brylcreem’d crooner and a wise-cracking Bond villain, almost drops back to narration within his verse in ‘Vertigo’, a curveball that further adds to that essence of discovery within the album. He’s surpassed, though, by Wilson, who turns out to be the perfect additional Modern Mansions member. Understated and considered, he plays only a bit part in the slow-motion chill of ‘Any Emotions’, but the harmonies that ascend towards the bittersweet coda are perhaps the peak of the record.
Despite everything, ‘The Great Pretenders’ shouldn’t be dismissed as a project that exploits pop royalty to shift copies – it deserves all the praise it will (hopefully) get based on just how great an album it is. After eleven songs of depth, colour and excitement – songs that grow more vivid with every listen – it’s always a shame to reach the slow decompression of ‘The End, Again’, but as the title suggests, it won’t be the first time, nor the last.