Though only a part-time congregation, this Chicago quintet has brilliantly combined the cool swing of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the complex arrangements of Curt Boettcher and the lush harmonies of the Anita Kerr Singers. Comprised of NRBQ’s Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough, the Decemberists’ touring vocalists Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, and session ace Alex Hall, the Flat Five debut a mesmerizing blend of pop, jazz, R&B and folk that is laden with joie de vivre. The opening “Florida” is effervescent with harmonies and a chiming guitar hook, and the R&B “Buglight” sounds like a jivey mashup of the Andrews Sisters, Roches, Mills Brothers, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks and Coasters.
The album’s ‘60s vibe recalls Boettcher’s work with the Association, Millennium and Sagittarius, along with the sunshine pop of the Free Design and Spanky and Our Gang. There’s a touch of Bacharach in the trumpet solo of “Birmingham,” a McCartney-like bass line on “I Could Fall in Love With You,” and the Latin-styled “This is Your Night” recalls Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66. Though to be fair to the latter’s playfulness, it’s unlikely that Brasil ‘66 vocalist Lani Hall ever sang anything like “don’t just sit around and mope / buy yourself a great big bag of dope / it’s a world of love and hope.” Those lyrics, along with those of the entire album, come from Chris Ligon, older brother of group member Scott, and a writer of uncommonly fine senses of melody and humor.
The group’s instrumental sound is the perfect complement to their harmonies, fluidly stretching from the banjo-lined folk of “Bottom Buck” to the languid guitar and accordion of “She’s Only Five” and Emmit Rhodes-inspired “I Could Fall in Love With You.” The waltz-time jazz “You’re Still Joe” has a tasty electric piano solo to complement the swinging rhythm section and a remarkable bell-like vocal round that plays the song out. The closing “It’s Been a Delight” is nominally a farewell from lovers who’ve loved the night away, but it’s also a clever thank you to the record’s listeners, and a fittingly sweet end to thirty-five minutes of vocal delight. This is the biggest, most unexpected and best musical surprise of the year. [©2016 Hyperbolium]