Even the most ramshackle noise requires a hint of skill to be executed effectively. Despite dismissive cries from its many detractors, good pop music requires a precise attention to detail, a keen ear, and a strong awareness of how to strike that delicate balance between catchy and plaintive. That being said, there is also a delicate balance to be struck between polished crystalline pop and overly savvy saccharine songs. It's just this sort of precarious tightrope that Brooklyn indie pop duo KaiserCartel seems to walk with their second full-length album, Secret Transit.
Secret Transit epitomizes a transitional album. It starts out loping and haunted with “Riverboat Dream.” The song is full of shadows and riverbanks, slow tambourine beats and gently lapping water. It sounds like it would be right at home on a mixed CD, preceded by the Raveonettes and followed by Mazzy Star.
Then it's right into “Carroll Street Station,” a bubbly toe-tapper about love and landmarks that takes its title from a subway stop located on a street of the same name located at the border of Carroll Gardens, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Indeed, much of KaiserCartel's musical identity seems inextricably linked with Brooklyn. In fact, two of their songs were used on Season One of the HBO series Bored to Death, a show based in Carroll Gardens and starring Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis.
The chipper pop of “Falling” seems strange in the overall context of the album. Something about it just feels off. It sounds like a mid-1980s one-hit wonder. Speaking of '80s pop radio, KaiserCartel cover the John Mellencamp song “Worn Out Nervous Condition,” originally released on Mellencamp's album Cuttin' Heads. For Courtney Kaiser, it's a thoughtful shout out to her former boss; she was a member of Mellencamp's band for three years. It's a nice gesture, but so is a fruit basket and a thank you card—neither of which listeners have to experience.
I consider a song good if, upon my first hearing it, I find myself singing along by the end. I had just this experience with “Minefield.” I think it's the strongest song on the album. It most successfully achieves a fusion of the creepy and the catchy that seems hit-or-miss with the other songs. On the flipside, “Wherever You Go” is a lovely enough track, but what's with the ringing alarm clock in the background? Is someone playing with an egg timer or something? Whatever it is, it detracts from the song and distracts this listener.
Courtney Kaiser and Benajmin Cartel are clearly pop music aficionados with ears attuned to the finer points of pop songwriting: catchy lyrics, ooohs and handclaps, strategically placed harmonies, and (except for “The Wait”) tracks that are under five minutes long. For the most part, theirs are beautiful, well-constructed songs. Yet what they seem to lack on this latest outing is an ability to put together a cohesive setlist. KaiserCartel fare much better with the eerie and the ethereal than they do with the indie pop. It's like they're trying to cram two completely different EPs worth of music into one full-length album—and sell themselves short in the process.