Strange Hearts is the second album by North Dakota trio Secret Cities, released less than a year after their debut, Pink Graffiti. The relatively short period in between albums unsurprisingly sees them pursue no major change in direction to their approach or sound.
Unfortunately their music is still mired in muffled, hazy production, a seemingly conscious decision to project a lo-fi aesthetic over the album. It is a shame in many ways as a rainbow of hook-laden bubblegum-indie-pop songs reside under the scuffed surface. It is not a huge leap away from the type of production that bands like Animal Collective have adopted over recent years but it doesn’t always suit or flatter their material.
Always Friends begins the album in impressive style, sounding like Vampire Weekend if their afro-beat influences had been minimised and replaced by a heady mix of pirouetting melodies and shuffling percussion. It features some of the cleanest sound on the album but once over the obfuscating production quickly reappears, giving rise to a blunt, bass-heavy sound on many tracks.
The ghost of Galaxie 500 lurks in the background of certain tracks, most notably on The Park. Love Crime possesses some serene harmonies (imagine listening to Fleet Foxes through frosted glass) but unfortunately can’t really help shake the track into life. No Pressure displays the band’s admiration for the sound of 1960s girl groups and the vocals of MJ Parker simultaneously recall the early work of The Magnetic Fields, albeit slightly more pallid and wayward. A milder, refracted version of 1960s psychedelic rock can also generally be detected on the album, although in reality Secret Cities are a thoroughly more indie proposition.
Brief Encounter makes room for some understated brass alongside the pining vocals, and for a moment the resultant glow can almost be spotted through the dense layer of fog. Likewise, Forest Of Love is a lively bundle of energetic guitars, bustling drums and stop-start vocals. Portland closes the relatively compact album, an infectious summery burst of indie guitar pop, the girl/boy harmonies swaying in the breeze whipped up by the blissed-out, saccharine guitars.
It is these later tracks that best demonstrate Secret Cities’ ability to write captivating little indie pop songs that defy easy categorisation. However, they only appear sporadically and despite the band’s endearing innocence, ultimately it is hard not to feel the album would benefit from a greater clarity and precision of sound.