Although Pale Boy is technically the musical vehicle of Seth Geltman and producer Thomas Blomster, it’s actually an ensemble project with 13 people sharing various musical and vocal duties. That, combined with the breezy folk-pop tendencies that float throughout the album, immediately create comparisons to Belle and Sebastian. And from a certain angle, that’s a fairly accurate description. But to really get a feel for Pale Boy, you need to imagine Belle and Sebastian all grown up, writing music for public television specials and working as music professors.
Musically, this record is practically flawless. In fact, it sounds a little too good. Although the music is predominantly breezy pop with a sizable Nick Drake influence, there’s also plenty of jazz, lounge, classical, a smidgen of Steve Reich-ish minimalism, and even a little blues here and there. And the execution is perfect. Strings and horns glide over glassy-smooth basslines, the percussion is snappy and effortless, and the guitars dance throughout the album. And over it all float sensitive, crystal clear vocals.
I don’t know too much about the musicians playing on the album, but from their performances, I’m guessing they’ve all been playing for the major part of their lives. As such, the music gets a little too academic and polished for my tastes. A little recklessness, a little rawness here and there wouldn’t have sounded too bad, a little imperfection to highlight the album’s bright points. But on the other hand, if Pale Boy were to opt for a gritty, bluesy sound, it would just sound silly.
But the album’s real weakness are the lyrics. Whereas Belle And Sebastian’s lyrics are pretty and touching, they also contain a healthy dose of wit and biting humor. Who else can make a song about a girl who likes Bible studies and S&M sound beautiful, without a bit of schmaltz to be found anywhere? Pale Boy’s lyrics are pretty enough, and Geltman likes to pepper his songs with plenty of images. But somewhere in the midst of that poetic language, something gets sidetracked. “And I know you’ve been drinking from the oldest hope that ever was/Riding up through your spine, flowing through the brain and through the heart, the part glowing” may be a poetic way to open up a song about lost love and regret, but it doesn’t give “I Know What You’re Thinking” much of an emotional bite. Then again, I’d rather hear Geltman sing it than some Gloria Record wannabe.
It’s not really a good sign when the album’s most memorable lyrics are its worst. “I Hate You,” despite its stately delivery, still sounds childish and petty: “I hate you. You’re an idiot. Your sterilizing gaze, your brillo-padded hair, your bug-eyed, bug-brained cramped and tedioys ways — Everything I hope I never come to.” And it goes on from there. Luckily, it’s followed by the album’s most beautiful track, the short and charming instrumental “Chloe.”
I love witty songwriters as much as the next Internet critic. And though Belle And Sebastian sometimes gets a little too witty for their own good, they still pull it off with their beautiful arrangement skills. Pale Boy has the arrangements and orchestrations down, no question about it. A beautiful Spanish guitar dances its way through “Shy Beast,” haunting strings and woodwinds weave in and out of each other on “Chance of Showers,” and vibes conjure up a melancholy dreaminess on “All We’re Left With.” And Geltman’s fey, youthful vocals make for the perfect counterpart to the music.
But so much effort is placed on sounding pretty and delicate that the songs just seem to float by like a cool breeze on a summer day. Although they get a little too sarcastic and bratty for their own good, if I have to choose, I’ll go with Belle and Sebastian’s youthful precociousness and sarcastic naiveté. Not to sound rebellious and harsh, but too often, Pale Boy sounds like Belle and Sebastian for the Baby Boomers. Mature and professional, but ultimately too safe.