The origin of The Proper Ornaments sounds like it could be the plot of a buddy film. Under the threat of forced residency in a mental institution, Argentinian Maximo Claps escaped to London in 2008. While becoming acclimated with the city, Claps and his kleptomaniac girlfriend at the time entered a vintage shop under the guise that Claps would distract the clerk while she stole some boots. This shop assistant turned out to be James Hoare (of Veronica Falls), and the two immediately bonded over Hoare’s Velvet Underground book.
Wooden Head is The Proper Ornaments’ first “official” album, though their first self-titled EP was released in 2010. Also, in 2013 Lo Recordings released a 10-track collection of the group’s singles, titled Waiting For the Summer. Now joined by Daniel Nellis (bass) and Robert Syme (drums), The Proper Ornaments’ sound is complete. The band’s “official” debut is a modest album of fourteen melodic pop songs with minimal adornments, but just enough to keep things somewhat interesting.
As mentioned before, The Velvet Underground is a very obvious influence on the band. The confident, rhythmic register in the first song, “Gone”, feels reminiscent of Lou Reed. “Gone” is a steady, straightforward pop song that foreshadows the rest of the album: gentle, safe, and solid. But steady is the key word here. For the most part, Wooden Head feels restrained. Unlike Hoare’s other project Veronica Falls, which pulses with a melancholic jangle, The Proper Ornaments’ subtleties lack distinction. The first few songs on the album sound identical, but perhaps this is because of the group’s penchant for oft-repeated, simple choruses. Or perhaps this is because there are few moments that feel loose. Again, it is a steady album.
There are several exceptions to this statement, most of which appear half-way through the album. “Magazine” is a sun-kissed wake-up call from the previously plodding melancholic songs (though its subject-matter suggests impending doom: it is from the perspective of a bullet in the barrel of a gun). Ironically, one of the warmest songs on the album is titled “Step Into the Cold”. It explodes out of nowhere, suddenly launching into noisy jangling as the previous song, “Stereolab”, fizzes out into silence.
Interestingly, The Proper Ornaments are often compared to The Byrds, but this only feels appropriate on “Ruby”, a slightly psychedelic, dreamy track. While The Bryds soared, The Proper Ornaments never quite reach the height to fulfill that comparison. Their harmonies are sweet, the guitars breezy, but the generally slow pace of Wooden Head may make you crave something a little more diverse.
Wooden Head is an easy, reliable listen from a band that has the musical chops and chemistry to make something greater. Considering the unusual circumstances behind Hoare and Claps’ friendship, perhaps The Proper Ornaments would benefit from taking more risks—the sort a refugee mental patient might invite, rather than the kleptomaniac sort.