Let’s be honest: Yale University doesn’t exactly scream “rock and roll.” Though we have our fair share of guitar-strumming pretty boys basking in springtime Cross Campus bliss, it’ll be a hot day in January before any of our alums are burning up MTV.
Not to say they don’t try, though — this Yale-Harvard Saturday, The Franklin Kite, the latest pan-Ivy mini-band, will hit up Toad’s at 8:30 p.m. for some serious popped-collar persiflage (that’s “fun banter” for all you state-schoolers). Featuring singer-guitarist Ryan Hickox ’00 of the Harvard astrophysics department, bassist Dan Curtis and keyboardist/drum programmer John Mileham, the group unleashes its distinct bookworm-chic style on its self-titled debut EP, where songs about space travel go hand-in-hand with the usual love-struck rock ditties. Unfortunately, their painfully unhip lyrics and roughshod style would sooner spice up a Star Wars convention than a college frat party (even if that college is Yale).
“Rocket Girl,” the opening number, is a slightly playful song, featuring 80s hair band guitar riffs and a kitschy rocket-launch countdown sample. Hickox has a good degree of Brian Johnson-style speak-sing sass in his voice, but he swallows when he should bellow, subdues when he should screech. His lyrics don’t help much — “When the launch was made/ It was t-minus delightful” — and it’s easy to wish he’d focus more on his “cosmonaut cutie” than craters, captains and cargo bays.
Things pep up a bit on “Miraculous,” where Curtis’ percolating bass and Hickox’s brooding, slow-burning guitar section spook up the languid lyrics. But even they can’t distract from lame Mr. Wizard whoppers like “Roswell is quite a place to go/A lot of cactus in New Mexico.” Salvation is attained in the catchy, cool-cat chorus, where Hickox and company lay some wicked buzz effects over his repeated intonations of “You ain’t nothing short of miraculous.” If only he’d let the whole song ride on the R&B influence he so obviously digs.
Then again, there’s really no excuse for “The Bling,” a Weird Al-esque hip-hopper that’d be funny if it weren’t so embarrassingly geeky. Its beat-box-101 drum line lets Hickox’s lyrics once again take center stage, and he’s clearly in pocket-protector heaven with cringe-worthy lines like “So I was walking along/ When I behold some gold/ It was some beautiful gold to behold.” The sole head-bopping minute comes during Mileham’s zesty, funkified and all-too-short keyboard solo, the song’s one shred of youth-savvy music muscle.
Thankfully, the So-Cal ska bass line and plaintive piano melody on “The Nectar” have all the acoustic sheen and emotional tug of a Coldplay single (sans the melodramatic proselytizing). Bravo for Hickox’s winsome guitar moments and far more restrained, rock-appropriate lyrics: “Ask to take a sip/ Of the nectar of her lips/ The touch of things revealed.” Closing out with a sweeping falsetto howl that blends effortlessly into the backing beat, “The Nectar” is The Franklin Kite’s most serious, symphonic moment, a radio-ready hit operating near a Dave Matthews Band-level of musical complexity.
“The Innovator” hits a similar sonic nerve, delivering a wonderfully pastoral mixture of piano, guitar and ethereal keyboard effects. At the same time, though, Hickox’s voice is oddly strained, unable to comfortably glide over the same high notes he attained on “The Nectar.” The song’s loose and laid-back style serves its lounge-lizard aspirations well, but the Franklin Kite boys simply aren’t talented enough to sustain a bluesy, hypnotic cadence without growing tiresome.
The EP closes out with a live version of “So Alone (The Alien Song)” which, as the title suggests, wincingly returns Hickox, Curtis and Mileham to their techie-nerd roots. The brisk, buoyant rhythm and tightly-controlled time changes could have worked wonders on a song that wasn’t an ambling, aimless paean to a boy who picks up alien signals on his Game Boy and becomes “the savior of humanity.” Come on guys, this isn’t rock and roll, and neither is much of the album. Yale and Harvard may not be breeding grounds for radio-roiling rock stars, but at least we know the difference between Neptune and the Neptunes.