Last week, a little-known sextet called Scarlet Tanager released a whimsical, high-production-value video for the song "Tumbleweed." In the clip, the six band mates are represented by googly-eyed puppets that go on tinfoil and cardboard-based adventures as the bouncy, whistle-heavy song plays in the background. The video was a perfect introduction to the band: a local group of siblings, spouses and friends, named after a red-plumed songbird, makes its opening salvo with an onslaught of felt and handclaps. Scarlet Tanager is relentlessly cute, yet in a way that is sugary but not lightweight. American Songbird is a well- arranged slice of indie pop, and singer/guitarist Susan Logsdon takes center stage amid trumpets, glockenspiel and some cheery, shouted backing vocals. Like most sweet things, it won't fill you up. But it also won't give you a cavity.
At first blush, it's easy to dismiss Scarlet Tanager as harmless, sexless twee-pop, and on a few cursory listens to the album, that's mostly all you'll hear. Songs of young love and bike rides mix with coloring-books metaphors and nursery rhyme snippets. Certainly, the ra-ra catchiness of a song like "Bum Bum Bum" begins to wear off, despite some slinky guitar lines and the obvious enthusiasm the band brings to nearly every track. But it's more accurate to say that Scarlet Tanager uses the shared language of childhood — long summers, skinned knees, secret hideaways — to make sense of the hormonal tidal waves and emotional bruises that come with growing up. With low drums, barbed guitar strokes and smoky delivery, "Baby Bunting" is, despite its title, the furthest thing from a lullaby; it sounds positively adult next to the shared hymns and sing-alongs on the rest of American Songbird. Similarly, the Mellotron flutes and gentles strums of "No One Likes a Quitter" shows that the sun must set on every summer. Songs like these serve as a reminder that inside every dead-eyed puppet, there's a human hand doing the real work.