Signifiers of American childhood—hamburgers, skateboards, pizza—thrive on both the album cover and song lyrics of A Great Big Pile of Leaves’ sophomore effort, You’re Always on My Mind. The album title doesn’t refer to a lover so much as a specific time period—the mythical, eternal summer of youth, set to a soundtrack of the lighter side of ’90s indie rock. Instead of offering a complex album that recognizes that confusion and boredom may be part of the purview of childhood as well as the adult workday, A Great Big Pile of Leaves seem mainly content to give us the by-blows of an idealizing imagination. Admittedly, such philosophical shortcomings would be less of an obstacle if the songs were as sunny or hooky as the pop-flavored harmonies of album opener “Snack Attack” promise, but for an album about “fun under the summer sun,” You’re Always on My Mind is singularly joyless.
Despite the occasional shouted choruses (on “Pet Mouse” and “Slumber Party”), frontman Pete Weiland’s delivery is mechanical, more dowdy than playful. Played over nervy, distracting drums, Matthew Fazzi’s busy guitar lines tend to overpower the singer’s low timbre, a problem that emphasizes the album’s general lack of melodic hooks. The only break from the relentlessly constant tempo and turgid vocal delivery comes on the short ballad “Egocentrism,” with soft strums, a simple, sliding acoustic guitar line, and the repeated poignant question, “Am I alone?”
Weiland has a degree in psychology, and the discipline’s rhetoric peppers the lyrics and titles like “Egocentrism” and “Locus of Control,” with too many of the songs falling into cliché or awkwardly straightforward and declarative lines. The endlessly repeated “Where did the summer go?” in “Back to School” becomes an ostensibly accidental parody of the ancient Ubi sunt motif when, in defiance of its three-minute run time, the track refuses to end. By the halfway point, the album becomes an exercise in monotony; the tracks and their daydreaming characters, on their various ways to work or parties, melt indistinguishably together. Someone proposing a midnight swimming party (in “Slumber Party”) with friends in their underwear should sound like they’re having more of a good time. Instead, Weiland delivers the lines “You don’t need your bathing suit/What you’re wearing underneath will do” with a doleful leer.
The best moments are the darkly humorous ones, when Weiland displays a faculty for self-projection into the ludicrous: “If I were a frog/I’d hop around all day long/And play a lot of golf/But not when they’re mowing the lawns.” But when Weiland tells off white-collar workers in “Pizzanomics” (“You better wise up/And get good at networking”), it merely plays like a literally cheesy knock-off of the Dismemberment Plan, content to hug the sidewalk on a well-traveled thoroughfare.