The five Chicagoans in Bound Stems sound both too innocent and too mature to cheapen their clever, jumbled pop songs with self-awareness. Most of the songs on The Family Afloat jump through their share of hooks and phases, few of which seem honed for maximum catchiness. Instead, they leave generous breathing room for Bobby Gallivan's free-associative, episodic lyrics. When Bound Stems do rear back for a punch, it lands with cutting clarity, as when Gallivan interrupts "Palace Flophouse And Grill" to shout, "Don't you try, I can see from your face you've been crying tonight." "Clear Water And Concrete" celebrates "a lucky afternoon" with a pure taste of the optimism at the album's core. Over the gentle banjo of "Winston," it's clear that the optimism doesn't come easily: "Oh, we're in a puzzle now," Gallivan sings, yet his voice offers a tug of hope. Even though it's less rousing than the album's closer, "Sugar City Magic," "Winston" is the key song. Like The Family Afloat as a whole, it reminds that a warm, ultimately mild-mannered band can strike with naked courage.

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