Calling an album Music for Listening to Music to seems at best a throwaway line, at worst an unfortunate, self-directed neg. La Sera’s fourth album, its first with singer/bassist Katy Goodman’s husband Todd Wisenbaker officially on board, does itself at least one disservice with it, subtly highlighting that this is La Sera’s most tentative-sounding outing. Produced by Ryan Adams in the sole week he was able to spare from a demanding schedule, Music finds the line separating “casual-sounding” from “underbaked” and plays hopscotch.
That concentrated week with Adams produced a coherent sound, one that cleaves to Adams’ alt-country wheelhouse. At their best, the duo harnesses wavering Ennio Morricone guitar and pairs it with indie pop pathos. “That’s my mistake,” Goodman allows mournfully in “Begins to Rain,” as duelling bright guitars whine. Yet Adams’ whims might be responsible for some of the weaker inclinations of the record: “I was certain that I could help her lose control a little bit more,” he said of Goodman’s vocal performance.
He’s done that, but it wasn’t a favor. On jangling opener “High Notes,” Goodman’s trill is less poised than we’re accustomed to hearing. Whether losing purchase on a sustained note or dashing off the final syllables of a verse (“I’m sorry/ Is the song too slow?” goes one breathless, ironic phrase), the ex-Vivian Girls bassist’s warble feels thin and skittish. Instead of embodying the pursed-lips defiance of its lyrics, the song lands like a just-OK bet thrown onto the bar. The difference between the voice pushed beyond its limits here and its smooth nonchalance on 2012’s Sees the Light or the breezy multitracked comings and goings on the self-titled 2011 LP is noticeable.
The band still has a good feel for a certain kind of song: Wisenbaker’s nimble, reverb’ed guitars and Goodman’s coltish vocal line makes Music sound like nothing so much as the soundtrack to a ’90s high-school dance. From the descending bluesy riff of “I Need an Angel” to the languid sway of “Take My Heart,” the best songs recall nervous sweat, skittish dancing, and hopeful heartbreak. A notable exception to this mood is “Shadow of Your Love,” which echoes hauntingly as if from a jukebox somewhere in Gene Pitney’s West.
Wisenbaker turns a few of the record’s songs into duets, with mixed results. “I would do anything for you to love me,” he beseeches Goodman in “Angel,” a boy whose snarl disguises pain. The spurning-and-supplication interplay in this duet is fun, but the song peters out, turning the time-honored two-chord guitar outro into an extended shrug. In “One True Love” his singing battles his guitar low in the mix, bringing to mind the guy from accounts who doesn’t really want to be at karaoke. By contrast, Goodman’s angelic peal soars, her counterposition distant as a mirage.
As with the record’s title, closing track, “Too Little Too Late” accidentally invites you to agree with the sentiment. Over simple, pretty arpeggiation, Goodman sings with assurance, finally settled and at ease. La Sera’s experiment with a new musical direction, line-up, and producer is by no means a failure, but, being the product of a logistical opportunity, comes across as more like a short stop on the way to something more solid and definitive.