once took a summer film course in which a student set a miniature, wordless romantic comedy to Rooney's "If It Were Up to Me." The first to admit that neither the romance nor the comedy really came off, he limited most of his post-screening comments to the depth of his love for the song. In this he gained the sympathy of his colleagues—there wasn't a twenty-something in the room unmelted by Rooney's obstinately unimportant fuzz, and the movie garnered the friendly praise you could tell our mustachioed, old-guard professor would have preferred been withheld. But each confession of enjoyment was tempered with a reminder that the movie wasn't, to be fair, very good. In such a state do we find the debut album of Simon Dawes, irrelevantly-named newcomers from Rooney's SoCal scene who on their full-length debut trip from imitation to imitation, energetic, earnest, hardworking, likeable, and not, to be fair, very good.
If the press release is to be believed, most of Carnivore was recorded half-accidentally in someone's garage, by musicians who intended to do things properly later but decided when they did that they'd done them better before. There's a charm and immediacy to a lot of this that supports that story—guitars spiky and dissatisfied with their place; drums clattering, eager, even a little smug; Taylor Goldsmith's vocals forefronted and embraceably clean, not a smidge of Julian Casablancas to be heard. The highest points of Simon Dawes' studious late 60s pop have a spark of irresistibility—"The Awful Things," all chugging climaxes and surprisingly deft suburban irony, is a perfectly good Kinks counterfeit—but those moments are smothered by stretches of dullness. And disasters like "Salute the Institution," which hasn't been informed that A) songs about the banality of modern music are just barely acceptable on your thirtieth album, let alone your first; and B) "Just the other day there was Ziggy / Now we're Ziggy-free" is never acceptable, ever.
For most of Carnivore's fifty minutes the problem isn't so much that this has been done before as the oddly self-righteous sense of classicism that hangs over it all. Simon Dawes belongs to a school of artists content to competently emulate briefly unfashionable past masters in the knowledge that such selection of influence looks to the short-memoried like a return to roots. So when "Lazy Daisy" sounds like every ramshackle sunshine-superman ballad you've ever heard, it's a statement—these are our influences, this was good, the kids in the record stores need to dig this up.
And of course it's true, but a lot of bands stop there, abdicating their own identities in favor of a meticulously photocopied aesthetic ready to be given yet another comeback. There are mixtape-worthy moments on Carnivore, but the album doesn't play as its own entity; it plays as a pointer to someone else's. And to a bunch of film students in a cool screening room on a hot day it might be enough to get something a passing grade, but even that sympathetic audience will know something hasn't quite come off.