Latest Flame Records (LFR19)Grade: ***
There's very little about Testa Rosa that can be called "vintage" or "retro," and yet this trio of refugees from Milwaukee's The Mustn'ts ? a band that broke up in 2005 ? can't escape comparisons to '60s pop acts like Dusty Springfield or the Motown girl groups.
Not that they'd want to.
Being mentioned in such company would be a badge of honor for anyone, let alone Betty Blexrud-Strigins, the band's primary songwriter.
Still, when confronted with a production this slick and glossy, it's difficult to make such comparisons. It's not a "wall of sound" in the Phil Spector style of recording, but Testa Rosa's self-titled debut does have the kind of clarity and volume that would leave no doubt as to what time period it's from.
Nonetheless, at the heart of this music is a classic pop sensibility that would ring true in any age.
"Ollie & Delilah," the album opener, is a racing, bittersweet lament caught up in a swirl of '80s synthesizers and pristine, jangly guitars that could have come from Roger McGuinn.
Repeated later with lyrics sung in German, oddly enough, it pairs nicely with the cascading piano melody of "Books About Clouds," and its vocal harmonies bring to mind somebody like the Shangri-Las. Mixed in among the pop-rock power displays, like "Hollow Arm" and the sunny strum of "Weather Underground," are gorgeous, folk-inspired gems like the ethereal "Arms Of A Tree" and "Rostock."
Sparkling melodies ring clear through misty, multi-layered, female vocal treatments here, with only the tired acoustic strum of "Only To Fail Again" seeming uninspired and the slow country movements of "Illubye" failing to catch fire. To call this effort promising would be to give it a backhanded compliment. It's a fully realized pop gem that, for all its moments of wonderment and awe, has its flaws.
But, for anybody looking for a throwback to a time when songwriting mattered and great care was given in the studio to getting the vocals to sound otherworldly and innocent at the same time, Testa Rosa will send you back there.