If Karate Bikini's 2012 release Sauce of the Applehorse was catchy but undercooked in places, A Simpler Sugar makes good on all the promise of a band composed of proven popsmiths. Karate Bikini has swelled to an eight-piece for its second official release, but the group sacrificed little tightness in bringing a few more players aboard.
Members have done time in bands reaching back to Lydia's Trumpet and Tinhorn through to the Bottle Rockets and Old Lights, so there's a host of guitar-driven rock to pull from in this lineup. On A Simpler Sugar, though, the styles are varied but focused on elevating Tim McAvin's lyrics. If anything, the new lineup adds a layer of lush instrumentation, especially in the way that Adam Frick's French horn lines sidle up to Michelle Rae's saxophone. For her part, Rae takes on a greater role on this LP, with her high harmony vocals often acting as an angel on McAvin's shoulder amid the guitar upticks on "Squeezeums" (her lead vocals on "K.N.U.C.K.L.E." are a bright spot as well).
Sure, Karate Bikini calls its new record A Simpler Sugar, but McAvin's lyrics have always had a strong acidic undertow to balance his band's power-pop sweetness. His songwriting persona is often that of the smiling misanthrope, and much of his band's driving force comes from the commingling of peppy bubblegum hooks and biting lyrics. That wit is still present, but the strongest moments here come when Karate Bikini turns down and looks inward.
Lead single "Pen a Letter" pairs a protagonist's apologies and vulnerabilities with the soft-touch flourishes of a vintage Pretenders ballad. "You're the Worst Person in the World" takes all the vitriol of the title and boils it down to a Magnetic Fields tribute, complete with resonant acoustic guitar, whiny accordion and not much else. "Tonight" may be the set's purest sentiment, with its pre-Beatles dream-pop setting the scene for love in the time of the repo man. For Karate Bikini, every love has oblivion lurking around the corner and every kiss-off eventually turns the rancor back on itself.
Pick up the album yourself this Saturday at Off Broadway.
Karate Bikini CD Release 8 p.m. Saturday, November 15. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $7. 314-773-3363.
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