by Mike Faloon
My favorite musicians are restless; when there is down time with one band, they will start another. They’re like high pressure weather systems — where there’s empty space they’ll fill it.
Scott McCaughey is the main songwriter for the Young Fresh Fellows but he started the Minus 5 when the Fellows were between albums. Todd Congelliere helped launch Underground Railroad to Candyland while Toys That Kill were taking a break. Now Isaac Thotz from the Arrivals has a new gig, Treasure Fleet.
Each of these side projects left port with a specific sonic focus, there was a very particular sub-genre filling their sails. For the Minus 5, it was the third Big Star album, Third (aka Sister Lovers). For Underground Railroad, it was early ‘80s Southern California surf punk. For Treasure Fleet, it’s Brit pop.
I saw Treasure Fleet last month at Awesome Fest. After their set my friend Matt Braun (he’s probably your friend, too — guy knows everyone) summed up Treasure Fleet as “Pink Floyd sounds with Guided By Voices song lengths.” That’s a good starting point.
The first time through Cocoamotion it’s the nods to Syd Barrett’s Floyd that stand out. The echo on the guitars, the distant backing vocals that flutter in and out of focus, the keyboards, even the bass fills that follow the second chorus of “High on a Bicycle” — they all sound as if they were lifted from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. “Black Rag” and “Proud Mary” are cut from a similar cloth, though come to think of it a more apt comparison might be the singles that Syd and company released prior to Piper, big, bright — short — songs like “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.” (Treasure Fleet only once go past 3:16.)
From there Cocamotion has a number of gems that go beyond the Syd/Floyd palate. “Mourning Dove” sounds like an outtake from Something Else By the Kinks — gentle in pace and tone with a beautiful coat of distant angelic backing vocals. (Is that Rasa Davies on backing vocals?) One of the record’s great strengths is that the closing songs are the best one. Both are quiter, slower, and revolve around acoustic guitar lines. “We All Go to the Old Ghost Town” sounds like Blur, while “The Good Wife” reminds me of the Jam, maybe a tune like “English Rose.” (“Vice” might be the most instantly catchy song on the record but it strays from the Brit pop template; recast the song’s keyboards with guitar and you’d have a great Arrivals song.)
But Treasure Fleet doesn’t just nick the sonics, they get the lyrical stance as well. There’s the fondness for obscure subject matter — “The Trapeze Artist” could be a thematic cousin to the Kinks’ “Death of a Clown.” There’s the tendency to reflect the values of middle class suburbia — “High on a Bicycle” is written from the point of the bemused neighbors not the space punks cycling about while all hopped up; “The Good Wife” is a sympathetic look at motherhood with my favorite line on the record: “The pup that she raised has learned to bite/As the day returns to night,” which calls to mind the Kinks' "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home." (Ironically, I’ve always considered Isaac Thotz to be more an urban, working class dude.)
My beefs with Cocamotion are few. I wish they’d excised the second, slower half of “Trapeze Artist” (it comes too early in the record) and I wish they’d cut or extended some of the little instrumental bits like “The Legend of Gil Hul” and “Cocamotion” — I like what they set up but they disrupt the flow more than they serve it, they pull me out of the stream of songs. (Of course, there’s an exception: the opening song, "Coca Mama," all 59 seconds of it, is fantastic — it sounds like Owsley spiked the Trashmen’s tub punch.)
It's difficult to imagine the day when Treasure Fleet is on equal footing with the Arrivals. But I've seen it happen with the Minus 5 and Underground Railroad. By my count Cocamotion, which has at least eight perfectly wonderful pop songs, is big stride in that direction.