Listening to the pop-classical “Days of Slumber,” the first cut off of Goodbyewave’s latest, I picture a Wes Anderson film made 25 years in the future, as the cool and classic sounds of J. Hubner’s project/band add a touch of retro class to the proceedings. Just as a good chunk of Anderson’s filmmaker cred comes from his pitch-perfect yet just a bit offbeat soundtrack selections, Goodbyewave’s music seems to have beamed in from a slightly parallel universe, one that offers all the recognizable signposts (conventional instrumentation and accessible melodies galore) but also tweaks them by degrees. These intangibles make Sleight of Hand a record that, while easy to listen to, begs closer inspection. “Her Secret” balances acoustic gentility with feedback and perfectly mirrors the way Hubner’s controlled vocals convey both calm certainty and inner turbulence. “I know you still belong to me / I can see it in your eyes,” he sings sweetly. “I never heard you say goodbye.” This tune could have received the slick treatment and turned into just another unrequited love song, but coming from Goodbyewave’s lake-dotted sanctum a line like “I’m just a ghost in your machine” implies that this is something of a sequel to “Every Breath You Take.” And, whether it’s a nod or a complete coincidence, this song’s got the same kind of lovingly sinister vibe and subtle handling that made Sting’s ode to pursuit such a wedding party hit.
As previous Goodbyewave releases have proven, multi-instrumentalist/singer Hubner and drummer Jack Long are no slouches when it comes to classic Brit-style hooks. The festivities continue with Sleight of Hand, particularly on the whip-smart “Sink or Swim.” It’s got it all: catchy descending vocal lines; a chorus that swoops and soars; and an insistent drive that never lets up. Though Hubner’s vocals are slightly reminiscent of a higher-energy Donald Fagen with maybe a bit of jump-started Mark Everett (Eels) mixed in, his pop sensibilities — especially in this tune (and in the even more Macca-esque “On My Way”) — have Liverpool roots. Even as the sun sets and the mood inexorably turns bittersweet on “Resurrect Me,” this elegant Petty-meets-McCartney number avoids the maudlin and churns out fresh hope amidst hushed drums, accordion and acoustic guitars. It’s a nuanced meeting between major and minor chords, a study in restraint. This, of course, only emphasizes the stark, pounding piano that drives the song that follows, “Not Lonely Just Alone.” At times Steely Dan-like, this tune channels an underlying hum of dread but never loses its surface appeal. Same goes for the fuzzed-out “Untitled” in which a central piano line competes with (and never gives stead to) a massive buzzing guitar. Here Hubner’s lyrics ruminate over endings both literal and metaphorical. Sleight of Hand ends with “Change of My Season,” a comparatively peppy number that neatly sums up the record’s musical/emotional ebbs and flows: “You’re more than a change of heart / You’re more like a change of season.”