If you’re gonna record at the legendary Argent Studios in Memphis and call the resulting album “Third” (an homage to the 1978 classic of the same name by power-pop heroes Big Star), you better have the goods to back it up.
Fortunately, up-and-coming singer/songwriter/musician Cait Brennan has delivered an album worthy of its historic birthplace. It has not been an easy road for Brennan, who’s transgender, and her life experience has provided rich material for compelling songwriting, although she certainly knows how to tell a story as well. “Third” is consistently entertaining from start to finish, a well-crafted retro-leaning collection of rockers and ballads that will never leave you bored.
Brennan’s musical trajectory has gone nowhere but upward since her debut effort “Debutante” from last year. Her songwriting is more confident and self-assured, the arrangements are tighter, and the mixing, which was an issue on “Debutante,” is vastly improved. Overall “Third” is more polished and professional. Brennan once again works with collaborator Fernando Perdomo, and together they’ve crafted a highly melodic collection of guitar-based power pop that’s at once personal but also highly accessible.
There is a definite retro feel to “Third.” Songs like the infectious “Shake Away,” with its ultra-tight harmonies, and “Benedict Cumberbatch,” with its ‘70s arena-rock vibe, would sound fantastic on classic rock radio, fitting right alongside bands like Cheap Trick, the Knack, the Rubinoos and of course Big Star. “Shake Away” and the hard-driving “The Angels Lie” are also fast-paced retro-rockers with prominent harmonies, all with strong melodies. Just about any track on the album, apart from a few of the more intense ballads, are catchy enough to be potential singles.
Album opener “Bad at Apologies” is an edgy and intensely personal blues rocker that’s probably the strongest track on the album. It opens boldly with the memorable line, “Yeah I’m the asshole who stole your boyfriend.”
“Stack Overflow” has a manic energy and “He Knows Too Much” goes even deeper back into musical history than late ‘70s power pop, touching upon late ‘50s and early ‘60s influences.
“At the End of the World,” an epic rock waltz with an ambitious full-band arrangement, practically screams to be performed live. “A Hard Man to Love,” with its insanely catchy chorus and delightfully swirling string arrangement, is a cleverly built number that unexpectedly ends with a bit of Caribbean flavor.
Perhaps the most achingly personal track is “Catiebots Don’t Cry.” Placed mid-way through the set and stretching to nearly six minutes, it might be considered the album’s centerpiece. Brennan begins with a beautiful falsetto wrought with vulnerability before her multi-layered self-harmonizing begins over bluesy guitar licks. It’s a heartbreaker on an album that runs a full range of human emotion.
After the raucous “The Angels Lie,” the album eases into a more generally downbeat direction, winding down from a set of high-energy rockers to show a different side to Brennan’s musical identify. “Collapse” is a wrenching baring of the soul, the expression of an individual spiraling into a period of personal crisis.
“Perish the Thought” is Brennan’s typically thoughtful reflection on the state of our current political situation. The album closes with the somber waltz “Goodbye Missamerica,” with Brennan channeling classic Elton John as she’s accompanied by a mournful organ accompaniment.
Cait Brennan is a rising talent. “Debutante” showed a great deal of promise and “Third” delivers on that potential. Perhaps a bit of sameness creeps in on some of the straightforward harmony-heavy power-pop numbers, but they are so entertaining that it hardly matters.