Sometimes you can never quite embody the heady words people are prepared to knock out about you. When US music bimonthly Spin referred to Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin as the group that “could someday succeed The Shins as the band that will change your life” in a review of the quartet’s 2005 debut album, Broom, it had a galvanising effect on the young Missourians’ career.
Referencing a certain Zach Braff-directed film that played a large part in the rise of indie pop to early noughties cultural dominance, it was a huge contributor to a wave of hype that the nascent four-piece could never really match. Aside from drawing musical parallels where few truly existed, it wound up finding itself attached to virtually everything SSLYBY would do; from rarely leaving conversation in online chatter about the band, to showing up referenced in all sorts of features and the press releases that fed them. It was a status that they were destined to never live up to.
Eight years later and with two records in the interim (2008’s Pershing and its 2010 follow-up, Let It Sway), we find ourselves on the eve of the now-trio releasing their fourth album, Fly By Wire, and a lot’s changed since they were awarded that blogger’s wet dream of a title. First off, they’ve lost the input of founder and multi-instrumentalist, John Cardwell, who’s taken a step away from SSLYBY. Earlier this year, they also found themselves named cultural ambassadors to Russia for a day – surely a deserved accolade for all the time they’ve spent slogging under such a silly, if loveable, moniker. It led to a trip to the motherland for the trio that saw them performing for schoolchildren and meeting Yeltsin’s closest friends, while also rejuvenating their belief and drive in what they’re doing.
Truthfully though, it’s the absence of Cardwell that hangs heaviest over Fly By Wire, but for reasons that are far from negative. Returning to the attic in which they wrote and recorded Broom, the three-piece have suitably streamlined their sound to accommodate the lesser manpower and what’s more, it works. Fly By Wire is power-pop realised in minimal terms: a suite of ramshackle tracks fed through a Young Marble Giants production vacuum, whose rich melodic sweetness is its only saviour from being bracingly claustrophobic.
You only have to take one listen to the way in which the odd mishit notes charmingly clash on the record’s title track, or how the jangling guitars of ‘Loretta’ wiggle in and out of one another, to be reminded of Broom’s dainty pleasures. It’s a return to what SSLYBY have always done best: that is, being the greasy kids next door who write the sweetest, most shambolic love songs. In the years passed between Broom and now, they may have dabbled in more innocuous pop punk-derived indie, but it was always the more dilapidated moments on Pershing (‘Heers’) and Let It Sway (‘Stuart Gets Lost Dans Le Metro’) that resonated most resoundingly.
Sure, there are times here where they resort to those two albums’ more tiresome precision – see the Weezer-reminiscent ‘Nightwater Girlfriend’ – but these are by and large the minority. Instead, it’s the topsy-turvy outsider balladry of ‘Harrison Ford’ and ‘Bright Leaves’ that are the order of the day. These are songs less about changing lives as exploring them; searching for, as frontman Philip Dickey puts it on the latter, “a parable that’s parallel to me.” Just try and put an everyman, life-changing spin on that.