In a world of ever-deepening on-demand specialization, the Stay Tuned Project brilliantly defies easy categorization. There’s rockabilly in here, blue-sky Britpop, touches of reggae, sun-drenched Beach Boys, something approaching Andrew Bird’s trembling openness, and other things too brilliantly weird to put your finger on.
Led by Serge Curranshee, the Stay Tuned project isn’t made to fit into the snugly obvious peg-holes favored by radio programmers, message board admins and serial hash taggers.
And, really, how cool is that?
Take the opening “Save the Day,” which combines a straight-forward power-pop approach (not unlike, say, the dBs or Suede) with a jazz-inflected, cacophonous soundscape. It seems at once handmade and thrillingly complex. By adding all manner of found sounds and crazy cadences, Curranshee takes what might have been a pleasant, if slight, anthem of optimism and transforms it into a symphony of sound.
Curranshee, collaborating throughout Heart on Fire with Ainhaya and Fogstuff, then settles into a friendly groove for the title track, starting with a sunny coo reminiscent of the best Beach Boys teenage hymns before the Stay Tuned project begins stirring things up once more. There’s a honky tonk piano, another busy rhythm and an acoustic flourish. Again, something that at first seemed fairly rudimentary has taken on a kaleidoscopic sense of wonder.
“Backstreet Schmooze” shambles along like a saloon sing-along, at least at first. Before long, Stay Tuned has added a rockabilly guitar, and this soaring Beatley vocal interplay. “Same O” builds off a classic 1970s’ singer-songwriter vibe, providing a showcase for Curranshee’s sweetly ruminative vocal style, ultimately throwing in a chugging harmonica and a swirling keyboard as the tune builds toward its anthematic conclusion.
“East Street” makes a more direct connection with XTC’s offbeat constructions (not to mention the next-gen Britpopsters), though Stay Tuned – predictably, by now – doesn’t stick around in any one musical place for long. With each new splash of sound, Curranshee and Co. move further away from both convention and from expectation. “Hey Babe” commences with a lean acoustic riff, with only a circular percussion signature surrounding the vocal, before bursting forward with a middle-section instrumental interlude that combines sizzling electric guitar, a gurgling organ and chugging harp. After another verse, this tough instrumentation returns to send the song home on a bracing note.
The fleet, fun rhythms of “All Right” couldn’t provide a better atmosphere for Curranshee’s impossibly upbeat lyric – at once bringing together and underscoring, in one moment, the open-minded aesthetic of Heart on Fire. Unafraid of trying new things, the Stay Tuned project lives in that place where even when things don’t work out, there’s something to be enjoyed about the journey. “Is It Love” again references the Beach Boys, though this time its Brian Wilson’s memorably introspective moments. Curranshee’s lyric here has the same kind of interior feel, like hearing thoughts instead of composed lines. He sings with an ingratiating unguardedness, too, giving himself so completely to the song that it’s nearly impossible not to share a sense of thunderstruck passion.
After a pair of more conventional compositions (or as close as this trio gets to such things), “Dream Extreme” returns Heart on Fire to a Cuisinearty sense of adventure. They ramble and rock with a rootsy verve that recalls Bob Dylan and the Band, right down to the squalling harmonica, but the song has too much of a pop sensibility to be so easily pigeonholed. Lastly, there’s “What Else,” which begins like a campfire song – only acoustic, a bongo, a shared vocal – before slowly coalescing into a soaring finale, but not until it mixes in a reggae groove, a funky R&B organ, a skiffling guitar signature, and a vocal so open-hearted that it almost physically hurts.