Smiles are a tough thing to analyze. They are so personal and it is not very often that they actually have any meaning behind them, either resulting because of a stupid joke, social necessity, or an awkward situation. The Mowgli’s, a 7-piece folk-pop and pop-punk band from southern California, attempt to correct this by creating genuine, pure smiles on their new album Sound the Drum. Immediately with the first track, “Hi Hey There Hello,” the band captures sunshine in a bottle and releases it on record. Bright, sunny acoustic guitars, bouncing drums, and vocals that just make you want to jump up and sing along create the sense that this band is very proud of its So-Cal roots. The sunshine does not end there though, as it begins to permeate in every aspect of this album. Handclaps and “do da da’s” are scattered throughout the album, creating a sense of irresistible joy while lyrics like “you’ll get high off my love,” “life will sing,” and “let the good times roll” paint life as one giant be-in. Love as a transcendental idea and as a spiritual “high” seems to be the Mowgli’s message, as communal sung vocals emit a friendly, loving aura that would be at home in the 60’s.
Unfortunately, the Mowgli’s barrage of sunshine and smiles does not penetrate below the surface, as it, instead, remains a very shallow and underwhelming musical experience in many ways. The instrumentation, although featuring some nice horns (“San Francisco”) and interesting piano sounds (“Ca$H”), remains stuck with the standard fare of bright acoustic guitars, chiming electric guitars, boring pop-punk bass and clean-sounding drums. The boring instrumentation is not at all helped by the fact that many of these songs utilize chord progressions that have been heard on every major pop-punk and folk-punk release in the last ten or fifteen years. Songs like “Hi Hey There Hello” and the pop-punk infused “Slowly, Slowly” are just underwhelming because of this reason.
However, this is not to say that the entire album doesn’t possess some form of musical exploration. While the majority of “Sound the Drum” is mired in tired tropes, there are certain tracks that escape this musical hell. “Ca$H” is one such track. Backed by a country shuffle and a saloon piano, this track finds the band exploring a sound that is not present anywhere else on the album (quite successfully I might add). Female and male vocals trade blows in this song as well, creating a dynamic that should have been more present on this album. And while on the topic of the vocals, the band clearly has a talent for vocal arrangement (as evidenced by the subtlety of “Carry Your Will”) and, in fact, this is perhaps the saving grace of this dull musical landscape. Throughout the album the vocals can be cavernous, echoing and huge when the whole band is singing or intimate while one member is singing. This could have given the band an incredible amount of variety and exploration in their music, however it is not taken full advantage of here.
Ultimately, the Mowgli’s never really aspire to do anything else but make you smile and on that count this album does succeed. However, a smile really can’t save Sound the Drum from its use of tired tropes and its overall lack of anything musically exciting.