The first thing you notice about Smooth Sailing, Mike Pace and the Child Actors' new LP, is that it gleams. Picture a studio stuffed with synth whizzes, session bassists, forty or fifty world-class audio engineers. Picture some label accountant rubbing his temples, grilling a Child Actor over some outrageous line item ("ten thousand dollars for 'vibe maintenance??'). Picture, of course, the man himself, Mike Pace: stomping around in a speedo and bathrobe, refusing sleep, verbally abusing children, sinking periodically into morose funks, instantaneously emerging from those funks with gnomic yet emotionally lucid career highlights like this album's "Troubleshooting," etc.
The reality is, in its way, even more outlandish. In the years since Pace adopted his Child Actors moniker and released Best Boy, he's had no fewer than two children, acquired a mortgage, and settled fully into a consuming job in production music. Smooth Sailing, then, was written and recorded in the cracks of a full and meaningful life: in those minutes or hours most of us use to watch bad TV, or stare blankly into the middle distance. And yet in terms of scope and lushness of sound, and in the way it updates and personalizes a whole slew of classic rock reference points, it stands with the best of War on Drugs or Father John Misty. Like those guys, Pace is first and foremost a nerd, the good kind: someone who cares passionately and unpretentiously about something most people never think about, specifically progressive rock and big-tent singer-songwriter stuff from the 1970s, and puts that care to productive artistic use.
On some level Smooth Sailing is its own classic rock radio station, diverse enough to appeal to a whole jammed freeway's worth of commuters. Some might prefer the Randy Newman/10cc-style "Senior Statesman" (one of Pace's full-fledged story songs, which some enterprising movie producer should option ASAP), others the perfect power-pop of "Blaster" (think Sugar, or Matthew Sweet). Undoubtedly some will cry right there in their cars to "Disconnected Heart," a ballad so beautiful you could picture a Xanax-addicted SoundCloud rapper sampling it. I personally love "Americana Manhasset"—a pink-sunset ambient-instrumental track which harkens back to at least four imagined pasts, only one of which I lived through. (Credit goes as well to Matt LeMay, the producer/multi-instrumentalist who embellished, shaped and mixed each of the songs on Smooth Sailing.)
If you've ever listened to Pace's music you know this already, but just to be clear: this is no kind of bloodless genre exercise. As always with Pace, the cherished albums are all mixed up with the memories of those cherished albums, and with the memories those albums soundtracked, so that the result—filtered through Pace's well-established interest in nostalgia, time's passing, etc.—is on the one hand new and idiosyncratically Pace-imprinted and, on the other, familiar and comforting and kind of pleasantly sad—pop sad.
This stuff might not sound much like Mike's last band, Oxford Collapse—possibly New York's last great indie rock band, before the whole operation shipped over to Philadelphia—but it definitely feels like Oxford Collapse, because all of Pace's songs yearn in this totally unique way. And as ever these songs are set in places built for yearning: beach towns, high school hallways, commuter trains. The yearning has something to do with growing up, with putting away childish things. A song like "Escape the Noise," with lyrics about giving up on guitars and "ragged nights," has a ton of parallels in Pace's discography, but this one's his best—for many reasons, but especially because we now know for sure that he doesn't actually mean it—that he'll be writing about this stuff for a long while to come. - Daniel Kolitz