If you're going to name your band after a font, you're probably going to be okay with being labeled bookish. And local quintet New Century Schoolbook—the Portland band once known as Escape from Witch Mountain—certainly makes bookish music: introverted, bouncy, gangly, and sometimes outright nerdy pop that slouches comfortably toward twee. New Century Schoolbook releases their second full-length record at a free show on Sunday, following up their (brilliantly titled) debut Their First Album Was Better and a further EP, last year's breezy The Happy Detective. The new 12-song Don't Hold Your Breath encompasses a sizable range of genteel pop styles with echoes of the Kinks and They Might Be Giants, and draws comparisons to Portland band World's Greatest Ghosts and Seattle band BOAT, even while New Century Schoolbook's sound is much lighter than either of those bands.
Tracks like "The Cognitive Revolution" and "Paramilitaries" also invite comparisons to the cheerfully mopey sound of Belle and Sebastian, but New Century Schoolbook never sound quite so bogged down by life's day-to-day struggles as that forlorn Scottish band. Rather, lead vocalist Johnny Askew's plainspoken, sometimes comic vocals occasionally sound bled dry of outward emotion—or at least sound slightly impassive, as if he's explaining something to a young child and trying not to get emotionally involved. And the band finds steady grooves in heavier songs like "The Firmament," a loping song that becomess increasingly taut, to excellent effect. Elsewhere, the band sometimes plays a little too thumpily, lacking the delicate touch that some of the softer material requires. But if the songwriting is occasionally more consistent than the performances, that's definitely a good sign; the bones are sturdy, and New Century Schoolbook's pliant sound usually has a good grasp on subtlety—not often a common trait for a rock band. Here's Don't Hold Your Breath's most elegant and inviting track.
New Century Schoolbook - "Paint by Numbers"
New Century Schoolbook play Sunday, May 15 w/the Caps and Johnny & The Bells; Ella Street Social Club, 714 SW 20th Place, 9 pm, FREE