If the movie Garden State had been made today, Miniature Tigers would be the band playing on Natalie Portman’s headphones when she hands them to Zach Braff: “You gotta hear this one song ["Egyptian Robe"] — it’ll change your life; I swear.”
Miniature Tigers are sly and literate, with references to Stephen King, Nabokov, and Hemingway (among others), but with images of closet-dwelling Japanese women eating food in your cupboard while you’re at work, psychedelic coyotes and lonely troll-boys — all designed to keep your head cocked slightly to catch those unique and imaginative moments of absurdity.
Listening to Fortress is akin to spending a lazy afternoon playing underwater bocce ball with Weeki Wachee mermaids, or enjoying a game of Kubb with rapacious and colorfully animated garden gnomes in a woodland meadow. In short, playfully anachronistic yet inherently engrossing.
“Rock and Roll Mountain Troll” has the perfect spritely melodies and gymnastic rhythms to attach itself onto your brain like a deer tick while you hike through the woods with your cool friends. It begins delicately enough, “Stoned at 3am and talking to myself in public” and then becomes a frenetic marching stomp about agoraphobia, Dostoyevsky, and dark obsessions, all presented in a joyously twisted package. “Rock and roll mountain troll/Living out your life inside a room/Surrounded by the things you thought you knew you wanted.”
“Bullfighter Jacket” (an NPR song of the day) could be a Salvador Dali naptime dream or an ode to the aforementioned Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “You’ve got your bullfighter jacket on and nothing beneath/I’d like to take my mask off and kiss you in the street.” You can almost imagine a drunken and half-nude Brett Ashley teasing the impotent Jake Barnes just outside the bullring. “Tropical Birds” has a pure Spectorish feel, but the wall of sound is lovingly delivered as if through an iridescent clamshell phone in a cheesy Hawaiian lounge lobby.
Fortress has echoes of Robyn Hitchcock, Bubblemen, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett (if he hadn’t been quite so insane), and what could only be described as Ray Davies’ playful nephews — or grand nephews? — if they existed and started a band. “Lolita” opens with an ancient and delicate piano, languid Spanish guitar and a single pounding heartbeat drum. “Redheaded and sweet, only seventeen/I saw you in some kind of gypsy crystal ball wet dream/Wild curly hair, a face that doesn’t care about me/You’re reading a book outside by yourself all night.”
There’s also the matter of the cover art reminiscent of a Gauguin, but with a model looking less Javanese and more Gwyneth Paltrow on steroids and/or acid and wearing a pair of prosthetic black eyebrows. You be the judge. [Apologies to the real model -- ATF actually likes G.P on steroids/acid and fake eyebrows.]
Much of the record was recorded at Dreamland, a converted 19th-century church that’s hosted everyone from Beach House to the B-52s. Located deep in the woods of (Washington Irving’s) Upstate New York, the location perhaps fostered a mood of excited terror, evident on the opening track, “Mansion of Misery”. That, and the fact that they watched The Shining during recording. The song is a carnival haunted house, a quick ride through madness.
“That movie put us in a weird headspace,” explains lead singer Charlie Brand, “so we decided to go nuts on ‘Mansion of Misery’, starting with the drums. We also wailed on the guitars, making everything as loud as we possibly could.” [Listen to "Mansion of Misery" here.]
Brand recalls being nervous on stage during a Ben Folds tour. “I made a weird joke about being on acid at this college basketball arena,” he says. “I don’t even remember what I was talking about. I was dying up there.”
Fear not, Miniature Tigers, for “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” and Fortress is a smart, fun and trippy ride.