Miniature Tigers, perennial indie darlings, return to bat with their 5th studio album, I Dreamt I was a Cowboy. This summery album features the rock, folk, and pop blend that has attracted legions of fans to the band over the years. Let's dive into it!
First of all, I love the title (and title track) of this album. The encompassing motif of this album being a dream is supported on all levels throughout this work. As I would expect from a veteran group like Miniature Tigers, this is a well thought-out and executed concept. From the echoey, loose vocals, the at-times psychedelic, reverb-heavy instrumentals and lyrical subject-matter, every element stacks up to drive home the sensation of a nostalgic mid-summer night's dream.
My favorite part of this album is the way that each track seems to ease into the next - a sign of the care and attention to detail that went into the organization of the project. Along those lines, the pacing, when viewed in the context of the entire body of work, is delightful. It's a seamless listen that floats along very pleasantly, but morphs and changes at just the right pace to be both intriguing but not abrupt. Like the most immersive dreams, you'll find yourself an entirely new location, not noticing exactly how you got there. There are a few distinct phases here in this album, and I'll organize the rest of this review by talking about them.
The first phase is the most immediate, accessible part of the album - it's a string of breezy, foot-tapping rock that reminds me of Sugar Ray's best efforts in the 90's. In the scope of the album's concept, this is before the subject enters the dream sequence. The plot of these first three songs follows the course of a relationship that appears perfect at first, but soon falls apart. The lead single, "Crying In the Sunshine", appears here and is a huge stand-out in this album. Another 90's band that they seem to be taking cues from is Third Eye Blind, a band famous for the contrast between the upbeat mood conveyed by their instrumentals and their haunting, depressed lyrics. Miniature Tigers have explored this juxtaposition in the past, with their hit "Swimming Pool Blues" off their last album, Cruel Runnings. Here though, the lyrical melancholy comes across as more nostalgic than anything, due to a combination of relaxed rhythmic tempo and heavy usage of "wah-wah" guitar effects and slides. I don't know what it is about those guitar effects, but they always seem to evoke memories of summers past in me.
The second phase of the album is about the subject entering a dream state after becoming overcome with loneliness. Sonically, it is a bit of a departure, not only from the prior songs on the album, but from Miniature Tigers' previous work. The pace of the music slows down and, combined with pulsating synths in the background, signals to the listener that this is a new phase of the album. In this section, Miniature Tigers do a number of interesting things, a few of which contribute to my favorite songs on the album. There's a heavier emphasis on outlandish instrumentation, mostly in the form of spacey synths or tiny, percolating background noises. "Nobody Else" is the one stumble in this regard, where I believe the band to go a bit too far. It uses a high-pitched up soul sample in the vein of Kanye West. I thought it was interesting, but ultimately the sample got annoying and distracting.
On "I Dreamt I was a Cowboy", the band decides to bring in a female vocalist, opening up a whole can of worms regarding the interpretation of this choice. Is she playing the part of the dreamer's manifestation of his love interest? Is it a flashback to before the couple got together? The title track is a stand out, not only because of this daring and clever narrative switch, but also because of the seamless transition into my favorite track on the album, "Wish it Was Now". This track is intriguing because it eschews the psychedelic electronic instrumentals in favor of mesmerizing guitar melodies that still manage to feel hypnotic. In the context of the album's concept, "Wish it Was Now" and the following track, "Wheat", are more organically composed and reminiscent of the songs in the first phase songs. Lyrically, they also follow the course of those opening numbers, but this time with the subject's idealized dream girl. There are some strong ironic lines, like "it's hard to believe you're real".
The third phase begins as the subject enters the end of the dream, starts to come to terms with the end of his relationship. It starts with "Before You", an energetic, catchy song. Eastern strings can be heard in the background, still following the ever-changing sonic landscape of the dream world. I think the transition after this track is the roughest on the album, but I think it's meant to be jarring. The last two songs are slow burning lullabies, which is ironic, given that they are about the subject finally waking up. I'm not wild about them on their own - in a vacuum they're a bit straightforward and not that exciting. However, when listened within the album as a whole, they make a lot of sense. They provide a satisfying conclusion to the story told within the album and the last track, "I'm Awake Now", provides a deliciously perfect amount of bittersweet feelings via some very weirdly distorted synths.
The more I delved into I Dreamt I was a Cowboy, the more I enjoyed it. Concept albums make the experience of listening to works as a whole so much more interesting, but not inherently so. Miniature Tigers have taken an oft-overused trope for a concept album - a dream - and done it remarkably well. Well enough that it stands out, due to the exceptional craftsmanship of the songs, down to the last detail. The instrumentals and vocals are married to the lyrical content, which itself stitches together the flow of the album. Every song on the track order exists in it's position for a reason; there are no filler cuts. The attention to detail is of the highest order and they even managed to weave in a couple very catchy songs to work as singles. It's a little late for a summer album, but definitely listen to it on a sunny day!
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