Most of the early press for the Secret History’s debut EP, Desolation Town, highlights two facts to bolster the group’s credibility. The first, that the Secret History’s lead songwriter is Michael Grace Jr., might actually be a legitimate credibility booster assuming you’re familiar with his previous band, My Favorite. I am not, but apparently Belle & Sebastian are fans, so we can assume that the band is probably pretty good.
The second thing you will learn is that lead singer Lisa Ronson is the daughter of Mick Ronson, late guitarist for David Bowie. This might, and perhaps should, mean less to you. Nepotism is rarely welcomed anywhere and rock & roll is certainly no exception. After all, Blonde on Blonde does not make you want to listen to Bringing Down the Horse, and the inverse is just as true. Likewise, Desolation Town will not easily call to mind Hunky Dory. Maybe you’ll notice similarities between the opening riff of the Secret History’s “Mark & John (Bring On The Glitter Kids)” and Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” but probably because the connection has been pointed out to you.
There certainly are bands from which the Secret History liberally crib, but not to the point of distraction. It’s debatable that opener “It’s Not The End Of The World, Jonah” would exist if not for the Smiths, and not simply because of the song’s jangly guitars. Lyrics like “Let’s go to the disco/ I know Rome is burning” show that Grace Jr. seems to share Morrissey’s affinity for mixing modern and historical references. “The Ballad of Haunted Hearts” aims for the power-pop grandeur of the New Pornographers (Grace Jr. and Ronson even engage in some Neko Case/Carl Newman-style vocal trade-offs), but unfortunately fall a little short. That instantly memorable, endlessly repeatable hooks thing the New Pornographers consistently nail when they aim for it? It ain’t easy.
One of the most important aspects of jangle rock and power-pop that is, unfortunately, occasionally under-stressed, particularly by the Secret History, is the singer’s cadence. Morrissey’s writing works better as lyrics, rather than poetry, because the man possesses a gloriously tuned sense of musical phrasing. “I would go out tonight/ but I haven’t got a stitch to wear” could have very easily ended up sounding silly, but Morrissey’s aforementioned gift allows the line to seamlessly blend into “This Charming Man.”
Ronson, perhaps under Grace Jr’s direction, perhaps on her own, does not appear to possess as clear a sense of lyrical rhythm as Morrissey. No song on Desolation Town makes this clearer than “It’s Not The End Of The World, Jonah.” The line a paragraph above about going to the disco because Rome is burning is delivered in such a clunky, awkward meter that it’s difficult to even care about the melody. The chorus that follows, which involves little more than repeating the song title a few times, only serves to illustrate how the name “Jonah” sounds a little goofy when sung. The song is only further marred when the last minute is spent with a fairly lazy horn section that, by and large, simply and shrilly apes the chorus. Long story short, the Secret History could have been considerably more careful when picking an opening song.
But Desolation Town has a more pressing problem throughout it’s brief twenty-one minute run. The EP is filled with songs brimming with the potential to achieve that previously discussed power-pop glory that peter out before that catharsis is achieved. “Our Lady of Pompeii” is loaded down with strong hooks that, much to the listener’s dismay, just cycles back around and repeats itself without ever having that big moment that appears to be just around the corner. The EP’s last song, “Our Lady Of Palermo,” has a marching snare that contrasts with the song’s delicate melody gracefully, and seemingly implies that there is a big musical moment on the horizon. Unfortunately, as is too often the case on Desolation Town, that moment never comes.