Ours & Others

The Small Square

Farm To Label Records, 2023


REVIEW BY: John Mulhouse


The Small Square is a duo comprised of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Paul Chastain, co-founder of Velvet Crush, and John Louis Richardson, a vocalist and drummer who’s worked with Tommy Keene and Gin Blossoms, among others. Ours & Others is their second album (the first being a bit obscure) and it’s quite a nice slice of lush power pop, befitting the lineages of these two gentlemen. They’re accompanied by quite a cast of supporting players, as well.

The album starts off with one of its strongest songs, “Twenty-Third.” Power pop can wear thin for me, but the piano and spacious production here gets my attention. This strikes me as a bit in the ballpark of The Jayhawks, a band that works some of the same influences, making no bones about their Big Star worship, but also keeps things diverse enough to never sound like a throwback.

“The Hourglass” is bright and jangly but retains an edge, never veering toward the saccharine. The slow intro and piano accompaniment by Kevin Gastonguay on “Found Object” had me again thinking of The Jayhawks (what can I say, I’m from Minneapolis). It’s got that somewhat melancholy shimmer paired with accomplished writing and playing, including some pedal steel from Adam Fabrini that is a million miles away from, say, “My Sharona”—just in case that is what comes to mind when you hear “power pop.”

“Open Up” does what the title implies, turning up both the volume and tempo. This tune would have slotted right in on ’90s alt-radio, maybe alongside mid-period Lemonheads or platinum-era Soul Asylum. It’s a catchy track. Heck, maybe this is my favorite tune on the record. Backing vocals are even provided by Jeff and John Murphy of ground zero power poppers Shoes. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The lyrics of “Tilt” reference “small faces,” and there is a strain of Marriott and Co. running through The Small Square, particularly here. I can’t think the mention is a coincidence. The 12-string jangle provided by Adam Ollendorff has more than a touch of the Byrds, as well. In fact, Chastain has played with Roger McGuinn and, as I write this, is on the road playing bass as a member of Matthew Sweet’s touring band, Sweet being another point of reference for this record.

Things take another melancholic turn on “Can’t Let Go (Oh, Tommy),” which makes sense as the song is about the abovementioned Tommy Keene, who passed away in 2017. This is a good time to mention that this album has some really nice vocal harmonies going on and lots of them. It sounds like Chastain and Richardson are often singing large sections of songs together.

“Insta” is a straight ahead mid-tempo rocker with some snappy drumming. In addition to all those folks already mentioned, Chastain has also worked with early R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, and while The Small Square never really sound like that band, there is obviously some common lineage.

“Days In” comes across as a bit of an interlude. Some gentle guitar and understated singing give way to a guitar solo exit. Possibly this sets the stage for the final two songs, which are a little more down tempo.

Wurlitzer and synth starts off “N. Main Blues” which reminds me of another Jayhawks-adjacent band, Golden Smog, the ’90s super group also featuring Jeff Tweedy, members of Run Westy Run and Soul Asylum and, at one point, Big Star itself. The thumping toms sublimate a slightly rockier version of the seventies.

The record ends on a wistful note with “Baby Face,” a Tommy Keene cover. With sparse instrumentation that has keyboard at the fore, it brings the record down gently, but the departure is more AM pop than power. Perhaps that’s as it should be. And it’s all over in 35 minutes, which is just about the perfect length for an album, I’d say.

As I alluded to at the outset, power pop is not typically in heavy rotation at my house. But Ours & Others is well done and quickly grew on me. The production is clear and warm throughout, and I’m digging the songs more now than I did when I first heard them, which is typically the sign of a record that’s got some quality to it. You probably already know if you like this kind of music, and if you do, I think you’ll like The Small Square.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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