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The Lemon Twigs - Go to School Music Album Reviews

Recorded in their parents’ basement, the second album by Long Island brothers Michael and Brian D’Addario is a musical about a monkey that features Todd Rundgren as the primate’s father.

Go to School, the sophomore album by Long Island duo the Lemon Twigs, is a musical about a monkey, but there’s a twist: It’s actually about us. Like the cinephilic siblings of The Wolfpack and the precocious outcasts of “Home Movies,” the brothers in the Lemon Twigs—19-year-old Michael and 21-year-old Brian D’Addario—see the world most clearly when it’s filtered through their own charmingly warped lens. Listen to Go to School on a surface level, and you’ll get the tale of an adolescent chimp, raised by humans, who gets his dreams crushed and his heart broken before returning to nature in a symbolic blaze of freedom and destruction. Give the album your full attention, however, and you’ll hear two young musicians settling into their gifts as they challenge the rapidly expanding worldview they share.

There’s a frenzied, competitive energy to the D’Addarios’ songwriting, which cycles through melodies and moods at a hyperactive pace. Their debut album, 2016’s Do Hollywood, resembled a solid acting reel, showing glimpses of narrative without ever offering a full story: Their range was the point. They’ve been associated with revivalists like Whitney and Foxygen, but the charm of the Lemon Twigs is in the unabashed, theater-kid fun they have with their record collection, an energy that guides their work more than any particular style. It’s a whimsical take on what we categorize as “classic rock” that feels more akin to turn-of-the-millennium Elephant 6 acts—particularly Gay Parade-era of Montreal—than to the Lemon Twigs’ self-consciously serious peers on the festival circuit. They value costume changes over fancy light shows, bargain bin novelties over the Rolling Stone canon. They have five favorite Beatles songs, and all but one of them are pre-Revolver.

Following the Jonathan Rado-produced patchwork of Do Hollywood, Go to School plays like an exercise in conceptual and musical focus. The D’Addarios recorded the whole thing directly to tape in their family’s basement and enlisted both of their parents as collaborators. (Their father, songwriter and session musician Ronnie D’Addario, helped track the record; their mother, Susan Hall, voices the chimp’s mom.) The resulting album is less dynamic than Do Hollywood, but its scuzzier, live-band approach brings the Lemon Twigs’ sound closer to that of their heroes. “Queen of My School” could pass for an Alex Chilton solo trifle, while the swirling chorus of “The Student Becomes the Teacher” would be at home on an early Todd Rundgren LP. In fact, Rundgren and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens guest on the record, the former gamely assuming the role of the primate’s father. Their participation feels as much like a flex on the brothers’ part as a gesture toward authenticity: These are our peers, the D’Addarios imply, with devilish confidence.

Occasionally, the Lemon Twigs put too much emphasis on imitation. As evidenced by the connection Michael has cited between his burgeoning Neil Young fandom and his interest in army jackets, their influences can feel like superficial touchstones without a unifying inspiration to link them. And sometimes the brothers lose the plot. The pace of Go to School should be familiar to anybody who’s gotten too stoned with a friend and spent an hour riffing on the same joke: One moment you’re choking with laughter; then, suddenly, you’re sighing, inexplicably exhausted, unable to remember what you found so funny just a second ago. A stretch of songs in the middle of the record pairs familiar melodies with rote morality in a way that feels oddly detached for a band known for expressing its enthusiasm in sets studded with high kicks.

Whether the D’Addarios are indulging in pure plot exposition (“What a big mistake/My taking in an ape”) or twisting clichés to keep things interesting (a bully is surprisingly sentimental, a love scene humorously vulgar and nonsensical), individual tracks can suffer under the weight of the narrative. What’s more unfortunate than the monkey musical’s excessive length is that you might not find yourself humming any of the melodies after it’s over. Only when the Lemon Twigs go for broke do you hear what they’re capable of. The album’s climax arrives with “The Fire,” six minutes of proggy, theatrical Southern rock that feels distinctly heartfelt—a quality the duo often downplays throughout these songs.

Despite their new penchant for storytelling, the Lemon Twigs aren’t seeking wisdom in Go to School (and thank god for that). But there’s more going on here than initially meets the eye. Michael recently confessed his aversion to contemporary rock music, and you can hear why he might find less resonance in the genre’s current torchbearers than in its early underdogs—artists who weren’t made for their times but found a way to transcend them anyway. Go to School portrays the D’Addarios’ fellow human beings as sad, helpless, and, at their worst, brutally ignorant. In their lyrics, the brothers whiplash between cynicism and wonder, earnestness and absurdity. While the Lemon Twigs’ sound is far older than their years, this set of concerns is remarkably age-appropriate as they enter their 20s and look toward the future: Where is our place in the world? How do we find our way without losing our spirit? They raise these questions repeatedly, then answer them with a goofy solo and a joke about bananas. Sounds about right.

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