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Idealistic Animals

by Toast Coetzer / 06.02.2012

Whilst I saw Harris Tweed (Dear Reader singer Cherilyn Macneil’s previous band) live back in the day and was aware of the waves Dear Reader’s first album made, I only ever really listened to that album (2009’s Replace Why With Funny) properly after Idealistic Animals had already been spinning in my car for weeks. In a way then, Idealistic Animals arrived in my ears with very little pre-story or expectation.

Once you brush over the ‘concept’ of the album (the songs’ main titles are all animal names, but it’s mostly hard to connect the specific animal with the song) and just drink in the songs, rewards will be plenty.

Idealistic Animals often trace emotional hairline cracks – by the end of the album you’ll be a grinning, happy wreck. The music is pure genius, a concoction of layered voices and light, clear folk-pop with so many memorable lines and bits that you’ll suddenly realise how thin on ideas many of Dear Reader’s contemporaries are.

“At night my body aches/ For your warmth under the sheets” are the opening lines, and from that point on you better beware if you’ve been surfing too far from shore on nothing but a sardine tin.

‘Monkey (Go Home Now)’ explodes with pop beauty, Brent Knopf’s production style being one of ten ideas per minute (ten good ones). It’s snappy, atmospheric, crisp – a Chomp that’s also peanut brittle. And then you hear what Cherilyn sings: “What it takes to be great is a tortured state”. She really does seem to be the kind of person who goes out onto the ice to see if it would break.

‘Mole (Mole)’ is most certainly about a mole, but when your mind is adrift you become the mole and that’s what makes it a good song. ‘Earthworm (All Hail Our Ailing Mother)’ is about Earth, a perfect soundtrack for driving into daybreak; I guess a balloon at first light could be even better. Singing about Earth (much like singing about your newborn baby) often makes for some of the crappest songs, but Dear Reader pulls it off with the requisite sincerity required. “I felt your frown and I filled its sleeves/ with an arm and a leg” is about as nice a description of lying on the ground and fondling the planet as you’ll ever hear.

At the heart of ‘Giraffe (What’s Wrong With Us)’ lies a chorus so awesome – pumped along by subtle brass – you’ll get teary and aroused simultaneously. Again a love song of longing, of looking back and wondering what went wrong, this one’s killer line is a wire flower’s stem through the heart: “We should ignite the city’s Christmas lights/ When I lace my hand in yours/ But that’s what’s wrong with us”. Sjoe.

Title track ‘Man (Idealistic Animals)’ is even more ambitious in theme, but when she sings “There’s no such thing as paradise/ Maybe now and then”, the heart pangs and all is forgiven, because that is exactly the case: a perfect life is a fuck-up waiting to happen. The music matches the theme though, a pounding, rolling beat, piano prancing along fiercely and a outro which bleeps and darts away like melting waxbills.

Imagery is a strong point of Cherilyn’s song writing, brief lines painting vivid pictures, quickly sprawling off the record and into your own life. ‘Camel (Not Black Or White But Camel)’ starts: “He rubbed his hands together and it sounded like folding a love-letter into an envelope”. And what at first almost seems to be a throwaway line later becomes the thought which might become your lasting take-home of the entire album: “I guess the fault lies with us both”.

‘Whale (Boohoo)’ is more cryptic – we’re in New York, someone’s mom died, but we’ll have fun in the cold anyway, drinking away the tears. I think. ‘Bear (Young’s Done In)’ continues the world tour, we’re in Budapest and we’re partying and having fun and wondering whether this means we’re racing towards death.

‘Elephant (Hearter)’ brings us back to the lonely coalface (you really feel the Northern Hemisphere – Dear Reader is mostly based in Europe these days – in the music, an icy fairy-tale with our princess locked up by a laptop, sending emails to a lost, warm continent). How can you live past a line like this one: “I only wish that you would return home to me/ And I could bathe in your familiarity”?

Frankly, if ever you’ve had a hole next to you in the double bed, then this album – the best I heard in 2011 – is for you.

PS. The final song, ‘Kite (Soon We’ll Light Up)’ is brief but hopeful – this year things are going to be different. Bloody hurray!

PPS. The album is packed with a second disc on which five of the songs appear as acoustic versions – proof that they’ll pack the same emotional punch when played live.

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