Wednesday, May 26, 2004

38. Keane - Hopes and Fears (2004)

I have to admit something: When it comes to Coldplay and bands that aspire to the same aesthetic, I find my reaction becoming increasingly, well, cold. Groups like this are very easy to admire and even easier to like, afterall, they find their inspiration in such crowd-pleasers as The Cure, U2, and Radiohead. But I just can't help but feel that there's something missing.

Sure, it's great sit-around-feeling-depressed-but-fine-with-it music. It's music for big theatrical sighs and deep musings of deeper feelings, and grand proclamations. It may sound like I'm poking fun (and I am a little bit), but there are times when you're feeling exactly like that, and this music is the perfect soundtrack. But what about the times you aren't feeling like that?

Anyway, we're being subjected to a lot of new bands lately, first billed as "the next Radiohead," now hailed as "the next Coldplay." This includes Travis, Ours, Snow Patrol, Starsailor, etc. The problem here is twofold. The major one is that I hate to think that the production of music has become so cynical that bands cop to a certain sound just because it's commercially viable at the moment (though this happens all the time and has throughout pop's history). The other problem is that some people, like me, want their bands to have influences that reach back before the mid-nineties.

Keane is bound to, okay they already have, run into the usual comparisons. The sticker quote on the package calls them "anthemic and epic." The band's line-up doesn't help; they've got drums, piano, and vocals (there are some synths, programming, and bass in there too). Despite the minimalism, there's no lack of depth in the music...the piano is a full instrument, as is singer Tom Chaplain's voice. By turns he recalls Travis' Fran Healy, Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennent, and Ewan McGregor's singing voice in Moulin Rouge (this is actually a compliment). In other words, he sounds Romantic.

And the songs themselves fulfill every expectation of the genre...every song is pounding, expansive, and deeply felt. The choruses are built to be sung by a stadium full of lighter-waving devotees. The first three songs on the album set that tone (culminating in the very pretty Bend and Break) and the band hardly deviates for the rest of it. On every song, from the quiet We Might As Well Be Strangers to the dramatic Bedshaped, Chaplin alternates a gentle wobbly lower register with a soaring falsetto.

I'd like to be bothered by the lack of cleverness and interesting imagery in the lyrics, but there's a directness and simplicity that serves the music well (and if you're unsure what I mean, just look at the title of the album, or think of Elton John's albums from The One through The Big Picture).

So all in all, this is really a complete nightmare for anyone who likes records that "take a few spins to get into" or who is just simply scared away by the conventional and mass-appealing. For everyone else it's wonderful ear candy, and thus the band has a very good chance to hit big.

It's possible that in a couple of years new bands coming out will be called "the next Keane." I kind of hope that's not the case, not because I don't wish them success, it just wouldn't be good for music history. And what I worry about personally is that after the initial infatuation has passed, will this just sit on my shelf with Coldplay and Travis and even Radiohead CDs, fondly thought of, but rarely played? Maybe I should just be happily depressed and hyper-contemplative more often.

Rating: B
Fave Song: Bend and Break

Saturday, May 22, 2004

37. Olympic Hopefuls - The Fuses Refuse To Burn (2004)

Olympic Hopefuls are a Twin Cities super-group of sorts, made up of members of Vicious Vicious, Kid Dakota, and Alvastar. Their new album is a crackerjack example of what makes power pop my very favorite kind of music.

As I write that, I realize I've thrown the term "power pop" in there without much explanation, so before I go on about this record I'd like to offer a definition:

Power pop (noun), 1. A form of rock 'n' roll music derived from the Beatles and Beach Boys whose proprietors usually obtain cult status among record geeks (and few others); 2. A form of rock 'n' roll music containing a majority of the following: handclaps, harmonies, keyboards, memorable guitar riffs and vocal melodies, lyrics about being misunderstood or how girls make no sense. See Cheap Trick, Big Star, Badfinger, Marshall Crenshaw, Jellyfish, Matthew Sweet, Fountains Of Wayne, et al.

The definition is a large one and could encompass countless acts. For example, would R.E.M. be considered power pop? There are definitely elements of it in their music, but unfortunately the there is a firm cap on the amount of depressing slow songs and electronic experimentation a band can indulge in. It's a narrow category for sure, and thus very difficult for bands to adhere to, let alone find any commercial success in (hello, XTC).

Oh, power pop has produced its share of one-hit-wonders: Katrina and the Waves, The Romantics, The New Radicals. And some have broken through the mainstream, like The Bangles and Barenaked Ladies. But as the definition states, power pop is really commercial suicide. You are most likely putting yourself in a category that will allow you to gain critical acclaim and a rabid, small fanbase who will rightly complain about how good your songs would sound on the radio.

So I admire and feel sorry for any new band that comes along and tries to stick to the formula. And here are Olympic Hopefuls! Songs like Drain The Sea (using an extended sailing metaphor to define the state of a relationship), Shy (where the keyboards buoy up our bashful narrator), and Holiday (playing the happy-music-depressed-lyrics card impressively) are all power pop in the strictest sense.

But the band is not all by-the-book. Power pop lyrics usually paint their narrators as painfully sensitive and (as mentioned above) shy, such as Marshall Crenshaw's There She Goes Again With Another Guy and Fountains Of Wayne's Red Dragon Tattoo. Olympic Hopefuls shake that up by adding some bad boy edge. Motobike's narrator shows little concern for the people who are so worried about him hurting himself, and Whisper is a full-out slacker song, where the girl is the goody-two-shoes and the guy is the troublemaker. Given that your typical power pop band members (and fans) are usually the nerdy guys who like the rebellious girl, this is practicality unprecedented!

Olympic Hopefuls have two songwriters, Darren Jackson and Erik Appelwick. For the entire 10 songs they trade off writing duties and neither lets the other down. Applewick's compositons might be the catchier (the afforementioned Shy and Motobike being the standouts), but Jackson's contributions could almost be read as an ongoing story. Holiday contains the couple meeting ("I heard you tried to hit on me / it's such a pity I was too damn drunk to see it"), Drain The Sea is about them falling in love, Whisper is where disaffection comes in, Trust Fund is the inevitable condemnation, and Stoned Again is the bittersweet goodbye song (it hits its zenith with these lines: "Do not forget to remember / I'm gonna write you lots of love letters / And I'm gonna call you everyday on the phone / And I'm gonna make you feel so much better / And I'm gonna make you regret you left me alone").

Overall, with catchy hooks, handclaps, catchy keyboard lines, and singable lyrics, the record is purely joyful and addictive. Am I hopeful that Olympic Hopefuls can be another band that makes good for Minneapolis all across America? Not really. They just aren't designed for that. But do I think they'll develop a rabid, small fanbase of record geeks? For sure! And their songs would sound great on the radio.

Rating: A-
Fave Song: Shy

Friday, May 07, 2004

Hanson - "Penny & Me"

The best pop songs have choruses that just won't quit. They break open and soar. They make you itch slightly when you sense the verse is coming to an end. They make you wish that there was just one (or two, or three) more repeats of that chorus somewhere in the song. As Roxette put it: Don't bore us, get to the chorus!

Hanson know a thing or two about that. Unfortunately cute and lumped in with the boy band phenomenon, the band never fit there, in retrospect. The boy bands had lots of awesome choruses too (I Want It That Way) but they also had choreographed dancing and strange facial hair and robotic presences. Hanson played their own instruments, and wrote their own songs. In their minds, on the boy band spectrum they were closer to the Beatles than the Backstreet Boys.

After their extreme overexposure (thanks to the aforementioned cuteness and a mega hit called MmmBop) Hanson quietly hammered out a solid second album (This Time Around) full of rootsy power pop, harmony and catchy melodies.

Their new record is called Underneath and continues in that same vein. The first single is called Penny & Me, and I'd urge even the extremely skeptical and hipster-minded pop fan to give it a listen. Yeah, it's got one of those choruses that keep making you hit the track backwards button. And the boys obviously know it. Look at these words: "So baby let's roll the windows down / turn the radio up push the pedal to the ground / Penny and me like to gaze at starry skies / close our eyes pretend to fly / It's always Penny and me tonight."

There are a lot of feelings packed in there, and the melody and harmony match the sentiment every step of the way. It's the main reason I listen to music: to evoke a certain sense of exhilaration, freedom, whimsy, introspection, dreaming.

The rest of the song is all about a boy who's enamored of a girl who seems to have one foot on the ground and her head in the stars, and who makes him feel the same way. But it hardly even matters; the verses are just there to hold us over until we can get back to the chorus.

Hanson may never match the success they once had, but it's a little sad that this song (and the album it's on) won't get even half the same recognition. Critics always say things like this, but Penny & Me is a song that should be all over the radio, if radio ran the way it should. Then again, if it was, we'd all hate Hanson for being too cute and commercial. Strange world.

Album: Underneath (2004)
Fave Moment: Duh!