Here’s how to eat an ortolan, a small species of bird traditionally served as a delicacy in France: Capture the ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana), force-feed it oats and millet until it grows obese, then drown the bird in brandy and consume it with a napkin draped over your head — “to preserve the precious aromas,” in the words of Wine Spectator Magazine.
Here’s how to listen to “The Ortolan,” the debut record from the Los Angeles-based band the Deadly Syndrome: Play the album once or twice while you’re playing dress-up in your bedroom, and then indefinitely in your head thereafter.
The Deadly Syndrome is highly winsome. Oh boy, are they winsome. They will win you! They will win everything! I’m pretty sure this is what the potential for tremendous popularity sounds like. “The Ortolan” delivers sweet songs of the sort that tend to get described with some combination of the words “indie,” “folk” and “pop” — working, of course, with the fast-and-loose usage of “folk” whereby anything with a wisp of plaintive vocal melody and the slightest inclination toward storytelling gets called “folk.”
They’re also pretty cute (“Animals Wearing Clothes,” “Heart”: both song titles found on “The Ortolan”) — which is neither here nor there. You don’t get to dismiss them just because their stage show features cartoon ghosties, but that doesn’t mean that ghosties are a good thing, either. On the plus side, however, their stage show also features manic energy and the vigorous use of mallets, which seem like promising ingredients.
But it’s not the mallet-wielding side of the Deadly Syndrome that shines on “The Ortolan.” Rather, it’s the fact that their wistfulness dial seems set to perma-wist. They’re wistfully winsome. Their plaintive melodicism calls to mind Arcade Fire — but minus that band’s bombast, which is both good and bad. They never veer into the melodramatic excesses that marred “Neon Bible,” but nor do they achieve the momentum of “Funeral” — although they do repeat the head-smackingly rote “older/colder” rhyme (oh, lost youth) that turned up on that record. The thematic territory that the Deadly Syndrome covers on the strongest parts of “The Ortolan” also recalls “Funeral” — “Eucalyptus” and “Wolves in the Garden,” two of the album’s strongest tracks, both evoke a childlike sense of wonder and foreboding.
Sure, the Deadly Syndrome might never be an act the size of Arcade Fire, but their small-scale charm suggests that they’re a band to watch. “The Ortolan” has enough unexpected accents — the barely-detectable banjo on “This Old Home”; the drawn-out, deliberate intro on “Animals Wearing Clothes” — that the band’s tinkly charm remains engaging despite the occasional misfire (such as the hidden title track, which sounds like an elaborate cell phone ring). The winsome-wistful weirdness doesn’t always work, but more often than not it proves tasty.