Mini Mansions‘ roots stretch all the way back to 2005, when the Californian trio – Michael Shuman, Zach Dawes and Tyler Parkford – pooled their song ideas and made grand plans for the future. Yet their self-titled debut didn’t see light of day for another five years; in part, perhaps, because Shuman became the full-time bass player in Queens Of The Stone Age, touring in support of Era Vulgaris and contributing his multi-instrumentalism to the production of …Like Clockwork. With QOTSA now on hiatus, the stage is set for Mini Mansions’ sophomore, The Great Pretenders.
It’s a record that follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, offering up melodic psyche-pop numbers in which walls of sound are daubed with deceptively dark lyrics. There’s no escaping the fact that it borrows liberally from the psychedelia songbook, but it also rarely hesitates to jumble old standards with new ideas – a quality that alludes to the band’s simultaneous reverence for past masters and willingness to invent. Opener Freakout! is the perfect example: its glam rock sing-along style builds steadily, blossoming into an ear-tingling climax that is at once familiar and fresh. A repeated refrain – “I’ve been down!” – is delivered with gusto at odds with the meaning, setting a bittersweet tone that lasts the album’s duration.
Lead single Death Is A Girl follows in kind, its gratifying, momentum-filled bass line – somewhat reminiscent of Metric‘s Poster Of A Girl – pointing the way to Parkford taking centre stage. When he gets there, it transpires that he’s an uncanny sound-alike of Tame Impala‘s Kevin Parker; a resemblance that crops up again in Fantasy, which sounds for all the world as if it’s a fugitive from the Lonerism sessions. Nevertheless, both tracks are entirely engaging, sprinkling more than enough fairy dust for one to overlook the borrowed elements – and they provide the perfect bookends for Creeps, whose soft dynamics, deceptive lethargy and Ziggy Stardust-style eccentricities prove to be utterly irresistible.
A pair of heavyweights are then introduced into what is already a heady mix. First, Brian Wilson shuffles into earshot on Any Emotions, where a relatively bear soundscape sees The Beach Boys legend initially contribute only delicate echoes – but then has a hand in the dense harmony of the chorus, the sheer power on display setting arm hairs on end. Arctic Monkeys‘ Alex Turner takes his turn on Vertigo, a sleek, lounge-like anthem where the refrain’s relative lyrical mundaneness (“Oh, you know… That’s how it goes”) contrasts sharply with its otherwise suggestive sensuality and movie-like sense of drama.
Mini Mansions’ big name collaborators by no means steal the show, but their appearance does mark the point at which The Great Pretenders begins to sag. Honey, I’m Home’s buzzing prog cacophony is altogether more chaotic and meandering than its predecessors, segueing seamlessly into the similarly savage Horror Mountain. It’s a glorious racket that turns a little flabby and indulgent towards the end, like a 10-minute jam session transforming into a pissing contest. The trio handle the heavy stuff well, it has to be said, but one suspects that their melodies remain their most potent tool.
Thereafter, it’s something of a stumble towards a conclusion; the relative staleness Heart Of Stone and Double Visions paves the way to The End, Again, which ticks off all album-closing clichés with five unnecessary minutes spent in the doldrums. It’s enough to make one yearn for this toploaded album’s scintillating first half; a handful of tracks that set The Great Pretenders apart, despite its slack coda.