Fans of intricate harmonies and smart pop melodies might as well reserve an entire swath of CD shelf (or hard drive) storage space for the collected works of Middle Class Fashion's Brian McClelland and Jenn Malzone. Together, they serve as co-lead vocalists in power-pop maestros Tight Pants Syndrome, and their presence has been a high point in that band's revolving-door membership. Pianist Malzone leads the more baroque-pop project Paper Dolls (which also features MCF drummer Brad Vaughn), and McClelland's solo project, Whoa Thunder, will be releasing an album this year as well. With such a knotty family tree, the differences between these projects can be a matter of degrees. On Girl Talk, Middle Class Fashion is brighter and more buoyant than the Paper Dolls' Dresden Dolls-y excursions and more restrained than Tight Pants Syndrome's kinetic rock & roll. As such, the album is less a revelation of the members' talents and more a continued document of their strengths.
Malzone's dark-tinted piano pop comes on strong on Middle Class Fashion's debut full-length (a four-song EP is available as a free download on the group's Bandcamp page). McClelland mostly sticks to high harmony vocals and buzzy, fuzzy bass tones, though his jilted-lover "Jamie" is a highlight. Malzone favors the other side of that busted-love coin — her songs treat breakups and dumb boys as an inevitability that's not worth getting upset about. Better to treat such things with a tiny sigh and a smart-ass smirk, as she does on "Fun Whoa": "It was fun while it lasted, but I'm already past it." Being guitar-free doesn't exactly equal a minimalist approach, but the songs have very little fat on them; it's again up to Malzone to set the tone with her cabaret and Broadway flourishes on the piano to fill in the blanks. "July 31" sneaks in a stately string section, while "Barbarella" turns from a '60s spy soundtrack to a Fiona Apple outburst in a matter of seconds. It's hairpin turns like that — and the loud-quiet-loud breakdown in "Birthday," and a whole lot of other sugar bombs — where Middle Class Fashion does a lot with a few rudimentary tools and a boatload of pop savvy.