Seven or eight seconds into “Money,” the first song and first single from the Kansas City-based Fullbloods’ second album Mild West, there’s a moment that evokes Steely Dan. The resemblance probably comes from the soft cushion of a landing after a blues-rock guitar lick, and in how that softness slides into an unassuming groove. Perhaps singer Ross Brown sounds like Donald Fagan, or exercises a similar smoothness that has more lying beneath it. Or maybe that piece of the song just straight-up sounds like Steely Dan.
Numerous other sounds and choices on the album conjure up thoughts of ‘70s rock and even early ‘80s pop and R&B. To say the band has anticipated these comparisons would be an understatement (its press materials cite Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits, Terry Pendergrass and others as inspiration). But its similarities to the past aren’t what’s most interesting about Mild West. More intriguing is the way it plays out the dynamic between the past and present.
Soon after those first eight seconds, “Money” sounds just as much like the state of indie-pop post-2010: interested in manicuring sounds, unafraid of slickness and perceptions of soft-pop as corny, not scared to get down on the dance floor, yet still bearing the casual-dress intimacy, sly witticisms and would-be slacker sentiments that have been the genre's hallmark since the ‘90s.
The first Fullbloods album, 2011’s The Perpetual Machine, more often slipped into moments of standard indie-rock crunch. This time the band has turned to a purposely layered and arranged sort of studio sophistication. Overt touches of soul and something approaching funk surface amid echoes of the other youthful, melody-focused bands on the High Dive Records roster (The ACBs, where Brown also plays, and the Shy Boys, which shares two members with The ACBs).
It’s also hard not to think about other relatively recent studio-minded, past-future-focused pop/“rock” albums like Destroyer’s Kaputt, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, or the last two Iron and Wine albums. By the end of Mild West, Brown’s falsetto-led quiet-storm balladry in “Winter Coat” and “Air Conditioner” recall My Morning Jacket.
For all the care taken with sounds and presentation, the songs still are often intimate little thought-messages about life. Topics covered include: trying to brush off past-due rent bills; staying inside watching movies; turning up the air conditioner and indulging in it; making and eating shrimp etouffee; cocooning for the winter with a seasonal lover and then rejecting her come spring.
That last song, “Winter Coat,” brings into clarity the prickly relationship thread that quietly runs through the album: a conflict between gentlemanly behavior and self-involved arrogance. This tension somehow echoes the musical balance the band strikes between a laser-sharp focus on details and a more casual, even bohemian approach to their music.
For all their amiable, everyday qualities, sometimes the lyrics mystify. Other times they seem consciously or subconsciously designed to reinforce how we’re feeling about the album. “New Generation” partly defends the band’s willingness to dress up its sound (“make some space in your mind for the finer things”), while “Air Conditioner” advocates for the comfort that comes with building your own world and indulging in it.
Then there’s “Caught a Feeling,” which in its chorus succinctly describes the pleasures involved in taking familiar old sounds, shining them up and wrapping them around your own little stories. “Caught a feeling/and made it mine,” Brown sings, placing Mild West in a perhaps unique crossroads between epic presentation and a more inert, satisfied type of indulgence.