Youth Pictures of Florence Henderson: Youth Pictures of Florence Henderson
How Is Annie Records

When two CDs arrive packaged inside the front and back sleeves of a hardcover picture book, the long-standing reviewer's first inclination is to expect that the elaborate presentation won't ultimately atone for the second-rate music accompanying it. But no such worry applies in the case of Youth Pictures of Florence Henderson's self-titled release, as the music holds up perfectly well all by itself and often spectacularly so. In this case, the visual material—a thirty-two-page book (available in red, green, white, and grey covers) featuring the work of Norwegian artists Hans Hansen and Hanne Grieg Hermansen—acts as a complementary bonus to the release's music. And don't let the band's appetite for oddball track titles—“He Can't Be Dead, I Got His Autograph Last Week” and “Our Door Handles Stopped Moving Years Ago” representative of the style—fool you either, because the music itself is serious—seriously good, that is. The release arrives five years after the band's 2005 debut (the outfit originally formed in Bodø, Norway in the fall of 2003) and suggests it spent a good amount of the time since then refining its sound. In the music's ecstatic reach, Youth Pictures of Florence Henderson's blend of pop, shoegaze, and post-rock suggests a cross between Sigur Rós, The Arcade Fire, A Silver Mt. Zion, and Explosions In The Sky.

Much of the group's emotive sound can be credited to the beautiful cry of Elling Snøfugl's cello, which often rises above the guitar-based attack, and credit for its power should go to drummer Morten Samdal. That the group's sound is largely guitar-driven is explained by a front line that boasts four guitarists; thankfully, such resources are used more to generate melodic latticework than punishing volume. The opening track on the first CD (the release's first half is christened Puzzle, the second The Detective) is emblematic of the Youth Pictures of Florence Henderson style, with gorgeous melodic progressions, chiming guitar figures, and swooning vocals (lyrics close to indeciperable when heard amidst the anthemic instrumental roar) three things that recommend “Let's Rent Bikes From 1942.” “To Sit Down Or To Follow, So I Follow” cultivates a wistful and melancholy tone that's powerfully affecting. In both cases, the songs reach such fever pitches the group's normally smooth vocals morph into screams. Especially episodic is “I Think E.T. Is Involved In My Family,” which alternates between passages of graceful splendour and raging blasts of stabbing guitars and vocal howl. “Scientists Now Think This City Is Overdue” sustains its melodic allure throughout much of its ten-minute running time, in large part due to the euphoria induced by the blend of plaintive vocalizing and six-strings. More of the eight individual songs could be cited, but, while each one offers its own particular pleasures, melodic or otherwise, Youth Pictures of Florence Henderson makes its strongest impression as a sixty-five-minute whole. It's a superb release from a band whose work unquestionably deserves to be more widely known.

April 2010