Just in time for Christmas comes the new Treats album – completely gift wrapped and everything. Now that’s a clever way to get a reviewer’s attention. Not that a new album by the Treats wouldn’t get a local music reviewer’s attention anyway. Their first two full-length albums got lots of notice in the local press and well-deserved critical acclaim.
The Treats continue to evolve on Sir Unicorn with a few surprising twists. The two openers would not sound out of place on a Beck album. “Yahweh Won’t Look the Other Way” is a little funky and incorporates banjo and layers of saxophone. “On,” perhaps the album’s standout track, really breaks new ground for the band, emphasizing the repetitious beat and soulful vocal line, until it breaks into a full-on fuzz-guitar assault. These songs serve as an introductory segue into the rest of the album, a robust stew of blues and rock and roll with a menacing undercurrent that recalls the White Stripes, “Headroom” being a fine example. The banjo returns, along with mandolin and some gorgeous piano playing on the surprisingly mellow and earthy “Help Me Now.” Elsewhere, the frequent use of acoustic and even nylon-string guitars to flesh out the musical backdrop is well-placed and highlights the band’s ability to employ creative arranging skills. Where most local bands would just bash out their tunes, leaving all the warts and lack of development under the pretense that it’s DIY (whatever that means – it’s all DIY, innit?), the Treats add lots of sprinkles to their musical cookies without sacrificing the kernel of creativity that informs their compositions or making it too slick or over-produced. In fact, the production remains decidedly lo-fi, preserving their living-room-rehearsal-room vibe. It’s easy to imagine them recording these songs live in their own Standing Water Studios, everyone in the room at the same time. The result is a cohesive feel to the album as a whole; no one player dominating the proceedings.
Sir Unicorn is definitely the most toned-down of the Treats’ releases but just when you might think the album is too acoustic, the swampy stomp of “The Warden” kicks in, a reminder that these guys can throw it down as well as anyone. No doubt all of the songs on Sir Unicorn will take on a tougher veneer in a live setting. “The Warden” is followed by a decidedly Tom Waits-ish “Mistake,” where it sounds like drummer Don Isham is utilizing the plumbing pipes in the studio. The album closes with another acoustic ballad, “We Had Fun,” with guitarist, vocalist and principal songwriter Andy Isham sounding his most Vedder-ish and adding some tasty twelve-string electric guitar flourishes.
The Treats have now produced three excellent albums (and one EP) and this is the point where the inevitable backlash from their local music peers typically begins. Hey, it’s a small town and local bands that get too big for their britches usually have a tough time in Madison. Somehow, I think the Treats will avoid this. They’re too sincere, too likeable, and ultimately too authentic to attract the scorn of the less-talented throngs that dominate the conversation.