Listening to Papas Fritas' "Buildings and Grounds," you get the sense that you've heard it all before. Is that the Zombies' "She's Not There"? (Nope, it's "Way You Walk.") And is that Fleetwood Mac's "Gypsy"? (Nope, it's "People Say" or "Questions" -- take your pick.) And there, isn't that Donovan? Or the Beach Boys? Nick Drake? Or Elliott Smith? Or even Suzanne Vega?
No, no, no, no and no. Pity, too, because the baker's-dozen songs that make up the Boston-based trio's third album all recall earnest pop hallmarks from the past three decades. Unfortunately, Papas Fritas don't live up to their predecessors. Instead of sugary pop confection, we get sickly sweet cotton candy. Instead of prescient emotion, we get precious pretense.
Neither Tony Goddess nor Shivika Asthana, who share vocal duties, has a strong singing voice, and yet the two mix their voices upfront. Rather than sounding pretty, which is the effect the pair seems to aspire to, Goddess and Asthana sound saccharine. On "People Say," Asthana seems to be emulating Vega's style of sing-speaking, but Asthana doesn't have the skill or the lyrical prowess to make this effect work. The song, like most of the album, deals with the difficulties lovers have forging emotional connections, but lines like "People think she's crazy/But they don't ask why" and "I love the love and the laughter/That she holds inside" sound trite and lazy. And while the musicianship, particularly Goddess' clear-eyed acoustic and electric guitar solos, is always fine, often good and only occasionally enervating, it doesn't redeem an overall aggressively mediocre effort.
Still, about a third of the tracks here are good enough to merit repeat listens. "Vertical Lives" and "What Am I Supposed to Do?" -- with their fuzz-tone guitar and unflinching pop ear -- are keepers. "Vertical Lives" marches forth replete with nonsensical lyrics and major chords, sounding as if it could be a classic summer anthem. And "What Am I Supposed to Do?" a lighthearted lovesick romp, highlights the better side of Papas Fritas.
A pair of tracks near the end of the album, "Another Day" and "I'll Be Gone," also rises above the weaker material, with the band focusing on jingle-jangle choruses and bright, shiny lyrics. A personal favorite: "There's candy bars and pizza to chew."
But these successes don't cover the fact that "Buildings and Grounds" plays like an in-joke. With their too-clever references and always coy posturing, Papas Fritas seem to have forgotten that good bands rise and fall on songwriting, not mimicry.