Album Review: Mini Mansions – Mini Mansions

Queens of the Stone Age is the band that doesn’t stop giving. Here we have another promising product from the QOTSA family: bassist Michael Shuman’s Mini Mansions and their self-titled debut. Composed of Shuman and his longtime friends Tyler Parkford and Zach Dawes, the trio concocted here a winning mix of distortion, psychedelic modernism, and a dreamy shot of nostalgic pop music. The listener will immediately draw comparisons to the post-Revolver Beatles (you know, when they were doing drugs) or The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (you know, when they were doing drugs) but the flagrant personal touches of Mini Mansions keep the sound rooted firmly in the present. The album is meant to be listened to as a whole, a journey through sounds and memories, visuals and feelings. It’s experimental, as the best drugs are, but has enough familiarity to keep you grounded throughout the ride. Shall we?

Mini Mansions starts off with “Vignettes #1”, the first out of three “vignettes” in the album that pop up to tie the vaguely cinematic theme together. “Vignettes #1” is an effective snippet of a song with a creepy, well-timed chime, layered with hallucinogenic harmonies – the perfect primer for the rest of the album. It leads into “The Room Outside” which ebbs and flows with a piano that takes the song from a playfully slow beginning and surfs it with a dramatic surge of fuzzed out guitars and impacting beats. Its deliciously dark and moving climax increases with your heartbeat.

“Crime of the Season” continues the feeling with the precarious balance of sugary harmonies and fills with the vibrating malevolence of the bass. A lot of the vocal techniques are inherently reminiscent of 60’s psychedelic rock pop, hence the purposeful stuttering on lines like “S-s-s-so many times.”

Shuman starts with soft vocals and simple piano chords on “Monk”, which wouldn’t be out place on Silverchair’s Diorama. Then they throw in a faster drumbeat and an incredibly catchy chorus “Whatcha you two-time me for?” But like a lot of songs on this album, it’s not without a coating of malice, which culminates in a primal scream and the strange sounds of what could be a kazoo.

For a change of pace, we have “Wunderbars”  a slow, dreamy organ-backed ballad through a tipsy, half-asleep world. It’s the kind of song you listen to while staring out of a rain soaked window, pretending you’re in a movie. And any song that brings your mind into a cinematic realm is the best form of escapism.

“Seven Sons” is a brighter, more straight-forward pop-rock song – and the word pop here is used quite loosely. It’s easily digestible ear candy. The sly tones of “Vignette #1” slink back in during “Vignettes #2”, which continues the song in its otherworldly voyage.

“Kiddie Hypnogigia” misleads you with the sweet, lilting voice of Shuman against a tinkling piano. Then the drums begin pounding and the keyboards, guitars, and bass churn their way in for a few moments, a tease of what’s to come later in the song: driving, sonic chaos that flits between soft and loud, light and dark.

“Majik Marker” is one of the standout tracks on the album. It definitely enters the “Octopus’s Garden” vibe of the later Beatles stuff, or maybe the Walk Hard version of Brian Wilson when he wants more didgeridoo and ends up jumping on a trampoline for days. It’s weird, if not just for the stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“All the girls at my school are ventriloquists, shrieky deeky hippopotamus”), but it’s wonderfully weird thanks to the layers of sounds and complexities in the song-writing. When Shuman sings “let’s go for the ride – don’t even tell your mother” you know why she’d disapprove. The fast, unrelenting build at the end of the song messes with your head. If the whole album is a trip, this song is where you start to peak.

Then it’s a slow comedown with “Girls”, a spacey track with Eastern tinges that melt seamlessly into “Vignettes #3”, an emotive instrumental bookend to the trio.

The final song, “Thriller Escapade”, is a gorgeous way to close out the album. Catchy harmonies soar over the stirring the piano notes until the distorted fizz takes control and the “la la la la la la la la la la la la” falsetto plays you out in an almost semi-conscious state.

I guess at this point in the review it goes without saying that Mini Mansions have a maddeningly intriguing and complex debut album here. It’s different. It’s well-written. It’s emotive. Those three things are hard enough to find in music these days, let alone in one place. I don’t know what drugs they have in water over there at the Ipecac/Rekords Rekords camp, but Shuman, Parkford and Dawes better keep drinking it.


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