By Kyle Brooks

Are We Breaking Up? is the new album by Atlanta band, Noel Stephen & the Darlings. It is a gentle melodious album, pink and fluffy. Reminiscent of a past time. A few truck-stop fireworks shooting over my grandfather’s garage. Trees hanging over city streets in the late summer surrounded by dancing and rhythmic kids from the 1950s. Perhaps the grownup characters from Charlie Brown and Peanuts.

Beware though, disguised in the middle like gold coins in a cake are the little silver daggers of harsh truth. There is danger around the corner. Lost love, longing and trying to make things work. Slight regret and the hope for a happy future. Quick jabs and blasts to my fragile mental status.

Noel Stephen & the Darlings is fronted by Noel Stephen. Amber Duncan also supplies vocals. Kyle Coleman, P.J. Elias and Jonathan McNair round out the band.

The songs center around clever yet cynical ironical looks at current pop issues – eBay, ETSY, and iPads, to name a few. Literary references and dreamy landscapes are intertwined with layered and sometimes lush vocals. Duncan’s  voice works well with Stephen’s, creating a nice contrast and harmonious balance. Softening up the album, a nice vocal give and take. I kept finding references to a cute, hipster view of life; touches of French socialist aristocracy; street dwellers looking for inspiration.
I found myself later singing lines to this album. Something that told myself it was indeed catchy and magnetic.

“Die Before You Dance” is a great foot-tapping tune, even on a first listen. It sounds nostalgic and I thought at first it was a 1960’s cover song. It was written by Stephen and has a contagiously attractive chorus.

Listen to the lyrics of “Your Beard Got In The Way?” It seems like Noel Stephen & the Darlings are singing about me. Am I just paranoid? The bearded one seems to be a mountain man, rugged and woodsy but he really stays at home, knows how to cook and thinks he is smarter than everyone else.

Look at this line from “Forever 21 Forever.” They are genius and truthful, yet painful if you listen too closely…”You can’t be 40 and work at the pet store. And the paintings of your dog, they are your decor but no one is going to buy them and people they just don’t understand.”

I saw “Zelda Fitzgerald” as a Johnny Cash / Chris Isaak type view of the recent Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris. Seems like Stephen wants to live in another time period. He takes us on a midnight stroll and it is a catchy nocturnal jaunt.

“All of my love and the iPad” is the line from iPad that sounds so perfect to me. I usually have to find an album’s most perfect line and this is the best phrase on the recording.

“HMO” is also full to the brim with current-day remarks. This time they are aimed at our corporate medical systems mixed with early 20th century literal references. Wrap all of this up with some Brian Wilson-esque harmonies and you have an easy to swallow and pretty song.

Lastly, we have “Let us Suffer.” This might be The Darlings’ most “current” sounding song. It is also their darkest. I saw them perform this live at their Drunken Unicorn show last month. I knew then this was a song that could reach across the demographic fence. Something that could draw the neighbors in for a closer look. Stephen told me he didn’t know where this song came from. It shows me he is more than a one trick pony and can craft a well-rounded and marketable pop song. This song is one of Noel Stephen & the Darlings’ best, even if Stephen doesn’t admit it to himself.

I will say that there are several climactic points in the album where I want more of a buildup; take the end of Rolling the Credits, for example. I like the breakdown and buildup. I want to hear them jam a little more, let it flow with their hair down. I feel they could have left the cake in the oven longer with a few songs. I think it would balance out things. Perhaps their next recording will capture a little more of their live performance stage dynamics.

A couple spots in the album lost their well-produced status. I found some odd jerkiness and feedback in spots. I suppose it caught my attention since the rest of the recording was smoothly constructed.

Overall, there is no sophomore slump here. Are We Breaking Up? is a pleasant and catchy listen.

You can download Are We Breaking Up? at this link.

Collin KelleyEditor

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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