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The Boy Least Likely To

"The Law of the Playground" (Too Young to Die) -- 4 STARS

By Mark A. VanMiddlesworth, Crimson Staff Writer

The Boy Least Likely To is unabashedly cutesy, even by the standards of twee pop. Not content with the softly-sung diary entries that have come to typify the leagues of Belle and Sebastian imitators, or the corresponding tendency towards cardigans and dorky glasses, The Boy Least Likely To takes fuzzy-wuzziness one step further by actually writing from the perspective of a shy, lonely elementary-schooler. Cuteness permeates every aspect of their newest release, “The Law of the Playground,” from the album title to the album closer “Fairytale Ending.”

This aesthetic of over-the-top whimsy and childlike wonder works most successfully in the composition and arrangement of the instrumental parts. “The Law of the Playground” is catchy and exuberant throughout. With an ear for interesting chord changes that calls to mind the Fiery Furnaces, The Boy Least Likely To has mastered indie pop’s delicate blend of accessible melodies and nontraditional harmonic structure. Riffs like the fiddle and banjo unison part on “When Life Gives Me Lemons I Make Lemonade” beg to get stuck in your head and stay there.

The melodies are well supported by the lush instrumental arrangements, which add glockenspiel, tuba, banjo, trombone, and recorder to the standard indie-pop acoustic guitar, hyperactive synth, and crisp, peppy drums. These instruments are densely layered, with the guitar taking the back seat and providing a base for unison melodies on banjo and horns during the instrumental breaks.

Singer Jof Owen has the voice for twee, an expressive near-whisper that works particularly well when multitracked into dense harmonies. His timbre reinforces their aesthetic of naïveté, but sounds a bit thin when soloing over acoustic guitar on tracks like “The Worm Forgives The Plow.”

Owen’s vulnerable, intimate tone draws attention to his lyrics, which are rich in metaphor and often veer towards intentional self-parody, with lines like “I need a cookie and a hug.” The lyrics work best when they undermine, rather than reinforce, the fuzzy cuteness of, well, everything else about the band.

It is easy enough to create a wistful childhood fantasy land, but it is more interesting to examine its borders, where the defense mechanism of regression into childhood breaks down either from its own deliberate obliviousness or from an encounter with the so-called real world.

“I Box Up All The Butterflies” shows this fairy tale collapsing under the weight of its own puerility. The narrator sneaks away from his friends and family to set traps “with fishhooks and string,” capturing a butterfly to bottle and bury in the yard as he listens to “the beat of its little heart / and its wings / struggling from under an upturned glass.” Why does he do it? When faced with the perfection and innocence of spring, and his own fear of the birds and the bees, he says: “something inside me made me want to tear it apart.” With this in mind, the listener’s disarmed revulsion upon first hearing music so overwhelmingly naïve can be seen as a natural defense mechanism, a way to mask our own insecurities by inflicting violence on something pure.

In album opener “Saddle Up,” this world of puppies and playgrounds faces an external, rather than internal, threat: a rapidly approaching adulthood full of unknowns, or, as the narrator puts it, “a big scary world out there just waiting for me.” This, however, seems to be a much more manageable threat than personal insecurity. The narrator begs us to “saddle up” and to approach the unknown with courage and curiosity.

At other times, the interface between childhood and adulthood is not destructive, as in “I Box Up All The Butterflies,” or monumental and adventurous, as in “Saddle Up,” but simply blurred for poetic effect. Lines like “I’ve got a little bag of marbles and a catapult wound around my fingers” show the narrator conflating the playthings of kids and grownups, reframing medieval warfare as simple schoolyard mischief.

If the saccharine sweetness of The Boy Least Likely To doesn’t trigger your gag reflex, there is plenty to be enjoyed here. Their musical arrangements are hyperactive and original, and their lyrics turn a critical eye towards the cutesy aesthetic of the twee tradition from which the band emerged. The band practically begs to be mocked; in fact, their self-identification with the shy kid who was bullied on the playground shows their position to be entirely contingent on this type of scorn and lashing out. But their self-awareness prevents them from lapsing into self-pity, and the result is an album that explores from all angles the ambiguous, awkward, and disorienting territory between the world of children and adults.

—Staff writer Mark A. VanMiddlesworth can be reached at mvanmidd@fas.harvard.edu.

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