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Pop Tarts: Heather Mansfield and Jonathan Bree, a.k.a. the Brunettes, pledge to be sweet but not sappy at Kuumbwa tonight.

Two Non-Blondes

The Brunettes play Kuumbwa on the 12th

By Paul Davis

In a few short years, the New Zealand duo the Brunettes has won a devoted following with its succinct miniature pop confections and clever arrangements indebted to the rough-hewn melodic charm of early Belle and Sebastian. The two have always possessed formidable pop smarts. But nothing in Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield's early work suggested the complexity of what they pull off on their new release, Structure and Cosmetics. Ornate yet understated arrangements, flush with string and horns on loan from a '60s Burt Bacharach composition, underpin a set of mini-song suites—complex numbers that change direction when you least expect it, pulling together fragments of full-blown pop songs with a video gamer's attention span. It's as if the closing suite on Abbey Road had been arranged by ADD mashup king Girl Talk.

All the same, this is not experimental music. This is forward-thinking pop music, affecting and still bearing the marks of that twee sensibility that so clearly influenced the band's earlier work. Critics often deride these sorts of bands as "precious," a word loaded with implications of insincerity, as if no one could possibly be so charming and disarming in real life.

But a few minutes speaking with the couple dispels any suspicion of contrivance. They're cutesy, no doubt, but there's a rich sincerity and arch glee to their conversation that lacks the world-weary dismissiveness of Lily Allen or the ironic disdain of many indie pop acts. In fact, get the band talking about the Wings- and Fleetwood Mac—quoting classic rock moves on their latest album, and they're more than eager to puncture their own apparent pretensions.

They also instinctively finish one another's sentences (they're partners in and out of the band). "When we first started we only had a four-track, and the main frustration was what we couldn't achieve without the multitracking," says Bree, describing the natural progression to more complex arrangements. "The songs on Structure and Cosmeticsare drawn out more, the 2 1/2 minute pop song blueprint has been put down in favor of—"

"Self-indulgence," laughs Mansfield.

"Self-indulgence, yeah," Bree says, laughing too. "The idea behind the previous material was short and sweet—"

"[The songs] are developed a bit more ... we feel we've proven our point and now we can draw them out more," Mansfield concludes.

The recording process behind Structure and Cosmetics was a globe-trotting affair, with the band working in Portland and New York using instruments borrowed from their friends in the Shins, and in their hometown of Auckland, New Zealand. But despite the ornate and complex arrangements, the Brunettes are not simply a studio band, overdubbing and creating a sound they can't reproduce live. Instead, Bree enters with a song skeleton that is then fleshed out by the Brunettes' six-piece touring band.

"Songs come together in the studio as recordings," Bree says, "and once the recordings are finished then the band figures out what instrumentation we have to work with given what members are coming on tour with us." This arrangement ensures that the band can reproduce the complex arrangements live, unlike many chamber pop bands that create unreplicable studio marvels.

Still, there are some obvious limitations. The group can't bring its string players on this U.S. jaunt, so they have to rearrange some things.

"The live rendition isn't always an exact copy of what you'd hear on record," says Bree. "It's a totally different beast." In fact, fans used to the band's understated and quiet studio work might be taken aback by its louder and more muscular live sound. Bree notes, "The limitations work for us, it forces us to do things differently," before Mansfield adds: "A lot of people say they like the rougher sound—and it is rougher!"

THE BRUNETTES play Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 7pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 adv/$12 door. (831.427.2227)

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