There are some records that always put a smile on my face, regardless of what mood I’m in. They seem to have an almost magical disregard for the harsh reality we live in, as if they were written in an alternate dimension. Most of the songs that make me feel this way are by Tullycraft.
Tullycraft are perhaps the first twee pop band I ever heard; a friend of mine showed me Old Traditions, New Standards while I was in college. It opened up a whole new world for me; one filled with lesser-known pop bands and small, independent record labels. Tullycraft helped change my definition of “pop” music. And here they are, over 20 years later, still putting out their indie pop staples on Athens, GA label Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records. Their newest offering, The Railway Prince Hotel, is another collection of incredible, carefree guitar pop. After all of these years, it’s incredible to see a band still releasing potent, catchy, simple songs. And while they haven’t changed their formula, it’s still a formula that has allowed them to adapt and grow without forcing them to change or alter their core sound.
Opener “Midi Midinette” sets off the tone and mood of the album perfectly. Tullycraft has never been a very serious band (see “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid To Know About” or “Wild Bikini”), but their songs still have a lot of heart and passion. “Midi Midinette” describes the way that some relationships are doomed to fail. At the end of the song, Sean Tollefson sings, “I never knew that you could be cruel.” And for all of the song’s catchy and upbeat inclinations, the lyrics are dripping with melancholy and regret over what could have been. Tollefson and crew have again let us know that they are the masters of twee.
“Passing Observations” starts off with some simple bass notes into a shuffling, mid-tempo ballad. The guitar work on the verse is perfect, with palm-muted chords and tiny arpeggios peeking from behind gorgeous vocal melodies. Again, the song’s subject matter discusses the futility of romantic love. Jenny Mears and Tollefson share vocal duties throughout the song, and on the chorus they sing, “This ship is sinking I can tell / passing observations from the steerage deck and I say it’s just as well.”
The twee-punk perfection of “We Couldn’t Dance to Billy Joel” picks up the album’s pace again. Though it starts off with a slow acoustic guitar and bass intro, some snare hits eventually usher the song into a breakneck speed story of heartbreak. Using Billy Joel’s 1989 hit “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as context, Tollefson crafts a story of two people falling in love but not being able to keep up the pace. He sings, “We started a house on fire and convinced these flames to grow / but we couldn’t dance to Billy Joel.” We all have heard this one Billy Joel song far too many times, and it’s a genius move on Tollefson’s part to write lyrics that turn that infamous song on its head.
“Goldie and the Gingerbreads” is maybe the most danceable number on the entire record. It combines the new wave sensibilities of bands like the B-52’s or Judy’s and combines them with the jangly guitar of indie pop. Tollefson and Mears again share vocal responsibilities throughout the song, and Mears’ harmonies are perfectly placed on particular phrases within the song. The outro to this song also features one of Jim Steinman’s brilliant moments from the 1977 Meat Loaf album Bat Out of Hell.
Tullefson’s skill in songwriting exists in his rapid-fire, tongue-twisting verses. And no song has a wordier verse on this album than perhaps “Has Your Boyfriend Lost His Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” It’s incredible to hear Tullefson sing lines like “we traded tapes you sent me ‘Blood on Brighton Beach’ from ‘96” so quickly over the closed high hat groove. Once again, Tullycraft provides us another example of smart, simple, and truly masterful songwriting. ??“Beginners at Best” almost sounds at moments like a Springsteen song from The River era hopped up on jangly pop melodies. The song’s tone is cinematic, and has a certain hope that is lacking in the heartbreak of many of the records’ songs. Not that the record is overwhelmingly sad. Tullefson manages to write and sing about doomed relationships in a way that is so casual and carefree that it makes it seem like just an ordinary part of life. Another day, another heartbreak. In “Beginners At Best,” however, the outlook is maybe a little more positive. Tullefson sings, “Navigating the storm by the stars on your chest / you bite your lip and it bleeds it reads beginners at best.” It’s okay not to know what lies ahead – we can enjoy the present tense. The feelings Tullefson & Co. convey in this song are simple, but universal.
“It’s Not Explained It’s Deleware” is one of the fastest songs on the record, with a constant upbeat that compels the listener to bob their head. It’s the most traditionally “punk” song on the record, if anything by Tullycraft can be called “punk.” You won’t be able to keep yourself from smiling when Tullefson and Mears sing “Turn it up, turn it up.” It’s a gorgeous song, complete with a perfectly messy guitar solo.
“Lost Our Friends To Heavy Metal” is the shortest song on the record, but one of my personal favorites. Beginning with an electric piano riff, the song’s melody is simple and bittersweet. The chorus harmonies between Tullefson and Mears are once again spot-on, and the lyrics offer us another story of heartbreak. It’s a genius little number that does well on the second half of this record. After an onslaught of catchy, upbeat tunes, this slower song showcases Tullycraft’s dynamic range.
And after that short change of pace, Tullycraft once again picks up the pace. “Hearts At The Sound” has that big 70s power-pop sound, reminiscent of Big Star or The Cars. And the lyrics seem to be about changing music scenes, and how people can become committed to a punk scene. The chorus goes, “we’d thrown our hearts at the sound / those nights and days and days and nights they’ll turn you round.” I think about my own experience in small, basement punk scenes, and I can’t help but smile when I hear this song. It’s a perfect tribute to indie rock, a scene that Tullycraft themselves have undoubtedly left their mark on.
“The Cat’s Miaow In A Spacesuit” is another slower song, and the second shortest on the record. This ballad features a shuffling tom groove and a walking bass-line in the verses. Tollefson and Mears again offer one of their heartbreaking harmonies when they sing, “I never thought I could hate you / I guess I was wrong.” Again, it’s another reminder of Tullycraft’s ability to write insanely catchy pop melodies on top of simple guitar chords.
The title track is perhaps the best song on the record. It’s big, dreamy, and full of giant guitar strums and bursts of brass instruments. The record has been leading up to a breaking point. It’s been building and building, and this song is like the dam breaking. Tollefson sings, “This room reminds me of you / black out the windows at the railway prince hotel / we couldn’t sleep but we tried.” The mood shifts from a failed relationship being painful and gloomy to being a fond and distant memory. It’s a celebration of the past surrounded by Springsteen-esque guitar work and fast, pounding drums.
“Vacaville” is a natural finish to a near perfect record. Starting with a group of folks counting in the first riff, “Vacaville” sounds like the start of something new. It’s almost as if the narrator has found a new love. Though the repeated failed relationships should serve as a warning against love, the narrator’s heart is open. Tollefson and Mears sing, “What’s your favorite band and who taught you to kiss that way / we’re running out of days in Vacaville and we can’t stay.” The record has been full of heartbreak, but the last two songs turn a corner. It’s a perfect sequencing choice – to lift our spirits at the end of a series of songs about romantic anguish.
The Railway Prince Hotel is my favorite Tullycraft record. It’s a perfect exploration about what makes underground pop and indie rock so special. Indie pop songs offer us a space to dream and reminisce about the past while being fully satisfied in the present. As the record makes that lyrical shift in the last two or three songs, it reminds us listeners that there’s hope for us. Even if we’ve been burned or hurt over and over again, we can find love again. Through jangly guitar chords, beautiful harmonies, and racing drumbeats, Tullycraft remind us that indie pop is here to stay. Let’s throw our “hearts at the sound.”