A lot of people talk about doing it, but few do. Musician and songwriter Mark Moogalian began playing guitar at age sixteen and, in the early nineties, followed his artistic passions to Europe. He settled in France hoping to be inspired by the art and culture and, shortly thereafter, met his future musical partner Isabelle Risacher. Risacher, a poet and singer, understood American culture thanks to extensive time spent in the United States and, as a result, any cultural divides the duo faced where quickly overcome. They began working with each other in 2005 and their debut, 2011’s On Our Own, established them as a polished outfit from the venerable singer/songwriter school of popular music. Their fourth and latest album, Love is the Only Game in Town, is a twelve song collection impressively devoid of any filler and impeccably produced.
The title song opens the album with simmering, underplayed strength. It never completely explodes and the resulting unrealized tension engenders an aura of desperation around both the music and vocal delivery. Moogalian’s singing has a surprising delicacy, but it never falls into sentimentality. One of Secret Season’s distinguishing merits is their ability to transform mundane sentiments or phraseology into something ringing out with the personal. “She’s So Mysterious” has a much fuller sound much more reliant on busy guitars. Longtime fans of Secret Season will recognize the stamp of Moogalian’s guitar on this and all subsequent tracks, but even novices to the duo will start to discern signature elements by the time this track concludes. “Show Me What You’ve Got” pounds thanks to its industrial-influenced drum track, but more unusual guitars and Risacher’s keyboard work strongly contrast with the clanging percussive attack. Secret Season, once again, delivers emotive vocals with enough nervy phrasing to perfectly compliment the arrangement and instrumentation.
The low-cut, distorted menace fueling “When I Saw Jesus” reinforces its sarcastic lyrical edge, but intelligence is the dominant element making this song, like so many on the album, vividly stand out. Despite the appealing textures and interesting turns, no one should ever mistake Secret Season for being a compromising, radio-friendly outfit. “Exhibit A” pushes the band’s uncompromising side to its furthest extent yet. Little in the way of percussion touches the song’s first half and, instead, Moogalian’s vocal maintains a delicate dance with his idiosyncratic guitar playing and other subtle sonic colors. The introduction of percussion in the song’s second half pumps up the drama a few notches for an appropriately satisfying ending.
“Mean Streak” is a sleek, mid-tempo track that comes at a great place late in the album. There’s a bit of understated dark humor in the lyrics and Moogalian’s delivery, but it never overlaps too much with the song’s larger downbeat mood. The affectionately titled “I Wanna Be With You” has a loose, relaxed swagger despite its acoustic base and Moogalian’s voice completely inhabits the musical and lyrical landscapes. The album’s final song, “Shine On”, brings Moogalian and Risacher’s voices together in much more harmonically pleasing way than elsewhere on the work, but the song’s slow pace and evolving musical themes are the among its most important qualities.
Secret Season’s successful fourth album deserves to exponentially increase their public profile. Love is the Only Game in Town’s twelve songs show, perhaps surprising, stylistic diversity that extends far beyond the duo’s self-proclaimed alternative status.