Dating all the way back to 1994, Berkeley, CA’s Lunchbox is the work of two constant participants, guitarist-songwriter Tim Brown and bassist Donna McKean (they share vocal duties); after overcoming obstacles and reclaiming their original name, Lunchbox Loves You serves as their return. Those expecting a simple recapitulation of past glories should be pleasantly surprised by the growth Brown and McKean display on this LP’s tidy ten songs.
For folks unfamiliar with Lunchbox, the cover of their new release includes a few handy visual cues into the nature of the sound. For starters there’s the cake, the heart-shaped and clearly homemade dessert representing the sincerity of their occasionally sugary sweetness as it drives home the record’s titular message.
But that formidable blade, an instrument frankly overqualified for the task seemingly at hand, signifies the edge Lunchbox’s music frequently exhibits. While it’s not really accurate to describe them as heavy, throughout their history they’ve conjured reliable currents of intensity enhanced quite nicely at times by stabs of rawness.
And repeating a gesture from breakout ’99 effort The Magic of Sound, Lunchbox Loves You presents its entire track-listing smack dab on the front. This may not seem like an action of any major consequence, but it’s a design choice reflective of the 1960s, and in making it Brown and McKean underscore musical ties to the decade.
Ties but not debts; as a later entry in the US indie pop reaction/surge, Lunchbox is a ‘90s proposition from top to bottom, though one that progressed from punkish origins to a place drawing comparisons to Elephant 6 and even Stereolab; in fact, 2002’s Evolver adjoined the two as techno additives made it fitfully connect like Apples (in Stereo) cutting a record for Warp or collaborating with The Third Eye Foundation.
Between Evolver and Lunchbox Loves You, Brown and McKean worked under the moniker Birds of California, eventually completing an album that took four years to come out; One and Only finally landed in ‘13 on Jigsaw. And Lunchbox has also gigged recently, plucking a “classic lineup” from their numerous permutations, but the latest LP has been described by Brown as almost completely the work of the principal pair, a reality that shows in its vibrancy and tightened focus.
Plus, it seems to deliver a partial restatement of purpose, with excellent opener “Everybody Knows” harkening back to early days in the combination of catchiness and distortion. Along the way they brandish a sturdy handle on melody and a wise preference for brevity as classique harmonies enhance a spirited morsel of indie-edged pop-punk (think Amelia Fletcher and a hint of Buzzcocks).
Follow-up “Tom, What’s Wrong?” extends a little, the first evidence of Robert Schneider-esque jangle-psych rising to the surface as Brown and McKean explore a mixture of mid-‘60s Beach Boys and the same era’s unadulterated bubblegum style, the tune accented with woozy synth/keyboard and featuring an incessantly shaking tambourine, that particular percussive device a recurring aspect in Lunchbox Loves You’s sonic whole.
As the vocals switch gender, the Elephant 6 similarities are deepened and complicated simultaneously. Although still manifesting elements of sunshine-psych, an ample amount of this LP’s succinct running time also inspects an overlapping angle aptly tagged as ‘60’s metropolitan pop, particularly in the chiming instrumental break of “Will You Be True?” and the cadence of its horns during the progress to fadeout.
Next, “What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You” promotes an agenda of jangling anemic/adenoidal melodiousness bordering on the hyperactive, somewhat akin to Schneider’s work in The Marbles; there is strumming and handclaps galore as the mood gets deftly reinforced with a bold and methodically raucous outburst of guitar.
“Die Trying” ends side one with a hunk of exquisite pop-craft, the singing swapping back to McKean on a number blending baroque production flourishes and thick yet dexterous instrumentation, its flag confidently planted between the zones of scrappy jangle and rainy-day ache. Strands remindful of Fun Trick Noisemakerunwind near its conclusion, and to this point “Die Trying” is easilyLunchbox Loves You’s strongest track.
Utilizing an oft employed tactic, “It Feels Good to Lose” matches McKean’s voicing of downtrodden lyrics with fairly lively guitar-pop execution, and while it doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, they do acquit themselves well through the maneuver, inspiring brief thoughts of Camera Obscura. “Another Dance Floor” is mildly comparable strategically, finding Brown starting out in the land of the awkward only to meticulously blossom into extroverted territory via increased tempo and a brighter dynamic.
With “I Go Mad” Lunchbox’s sugar-coated psych pill is engulfed by the undeniably tony/modish aura of ‘60’s AM-radio studio pop, indeed this time unabashedly light and also elaborate, with its tasteful bursts of horn, innocuous flute lilting and McKean’s backing vocals getting spiked by Brown’s lead voice distinctively mingling the pouty and the hopeful.
“Give a Little Love” initially examines the intersection of bubblegum and psych-pop, though in the final minute it freefalls into a featherbed of cascading strings and softly euphoric emotional release; on first play I half expected to be transported to a public square where a woman looking suspiciously like Mary Tyler Moore was in the process of throwing her hat to the heavens.
On that note, I’ll admit to desiring a tad more glistening steel and a bit less confectionery, but Lunchbox Loves You’s “Tonight is Out of Sight” delivers an uproarious finale of Ramones-descended writing basking in fuzzy psych-pop ambiance. Furthermore, Birds of California was at moments a more forceful affair, though upon consideration ‘twas a lesser experience than this LP (Brown’s measured dissatisfaction with One and Only is borne out by the superiority of “Another Dance Floor” to its predecessor on the ’13 record “Minute on the Dancefloor”).
Likewise, I find it impossible to deny the quality of the tunes, the cohesiveness of performance and the smarts of their presentation, the disc flaunting trim, symmetrical sequencing (again, it begins with a bang and culminates in a power move) and just enough heft to keep it all from floating off into the ozone or becoming too precious.
Lunchbox Loves You ultimately registers not as a comeback hindered by premeditation in hopes of rekindled glory but instead as a significant adjustment to an uninterrupted if intermittently strained flow of activity. It’s easily Lunchbox’s best. Listeners taking a shine to the inevitable upswing of indie-derived retro-‘90s sounds might consider investigating this platter; not a well-intentioned facsimile, herein is the real deal.
GRADED ON A CURVE: