The first time I listened to The Black Skirts was all the way back in 2012, when I encountered the magic of ‘201‘. ‘201’ was an album with character and unique, quirky charm; it also had a surprisingly large emotional breadth, with songs that could make you laugh, cry, or do both at the same time. Tracks like “Stand Still” and “Dientes” were infused with both childlike spirit and the bitter realizations of adulthood.
Unfortunately, much of that magic isn’t really present on ‘Team Baby‘. Its fuzzy, retro wash is a closer match to The Black Skirts’ sophomore effort, ‘Don’t You Worry Baby (I’m Only Swimming)‘, and there’s a noticeable preference for slow-moving, vaguely melancholic ballads. From one song to the next, the tempo remains roughly consistent, the chord progressions become increasingly familiar, and it’s easy to feel lost within the vast expanse of flat terrain. “In My City of Seoul” brings in strings in an attempt to get that extra emotional pull, but they just feel like an empty embellishment, hollow plastic ornaments on a fake Christmas tree. “1:05” is the only track that seems to approach anywhere near the swinging fun of ‘201.’
The strength of The Black Skirts has never lain on the slow songs, and “Everything” might be the only exception on this album. It’s decelerated to the point where it develops a dream-like atmosphere that is appropriate for its shoegazy nature. So it’s puzzling to me that this path would be pursued on ‘Team Baby.’ Its most memorable moments are on the most upbeat tracks, where The Black Skirts’ characteristic energy gets more opportunity to shine. “Diamond” is a step in the right direction, as are “Big Love” and “Confetti And Balloons”, but they still feel devoid of emotional substance. There’s a lot of borrowing from genre tropes that unfortunately seem to consist of the majority of the foundation for ‘Team Baby.’ Yes, The Black Skirts has always been indebted to some old-school pop sounds, but there was often a personal twist that feels poorly utilized here. Where cheesy or odd lyrics might have been forgivable or even lovable on previous songs, they lack any contextual charm on ‘Team Baby’ and feel remarkably clichéd as a result.
No aspect of Team Baby is actually intolerable or audibly offensive. It might be that the lo-fi production hinders song-writing that would have shined more had it been exposed in a different way. But I’m not hearing anything new or engaging from an outlet that once created masterfully fun, catchy songs.