Thursday, January 01, 2009

201. The Hopefuls: Now Playing at the One-Seat Theatre (2008)

Now Playing At The One-Seat Theatre, the long-awaited second album from Twin Cities power pop super-group The Hopefuls, has a couple of repeating motifs. One is the closing instrumental track that echoes the title track. The other is a rousing coda that ends the album's opening and penultimate songs. In both, songwriters Darren Jackson and John Hermanson shout: "It was a long way back / And we almost made it."

At first it seems like a meaningless phrase, but with some context, it comes into focus. See, after the 2004 release of The Fuses Refuse To Burn, The Hopefuls (The Olympic Hopefuls before the litigious I.O.C. got involved) had plenty of reasons to fulfill their own moniker. They had a cracking live show, songs catchier than chicken pox, and national exposure (on The O.C.). But then things got rough.

Erik Appelwick, who wrote and sang half of the songs on the band's debut, left the band in 2006 to be in a band that has exceeded its local fame, Tapes 'n Tapes. This threw The Hopefuls' future into question. Guitarist and leader Jackson kept the group alive as a performing entity, with keyboardist Hermanson, a talented singer and songwriter in his own right, taking a bigger role. However, the longer the band went without releasing a promised second album, the harder it was to stay, well, hopeful that they'd continue on.

Thankfully the fuse never completely went out. After a wait the same as the interval between Olympics we finally have Now Playing at the One-Seat Theatre. Any worries that the loss of Appelwick and the long layoff would kill the magic are immediately assuaged once the keytar kicks off the album's infectious opening song, The Edge of Medicine. It's one of four songs on Now Playing... that the band have been performing live for at least the last three years (the others are Idaho, Red Stain, and Hold Your Own), and I'm thrilled to have it on disc. On first blush the lyrics seem to concern our Prozac nation, but further evidence points to steroids as its true subject. Witness the lines: "We are fast / We are strong / But we won't be here for long / So let's set a record they could never break."

Idaho is a break-up song, a Jackson specialty. It's also as musically joyous as anything you'll hear in the new year. The song's narrator is clearly upset that his beloved is leaving for Idaho, but he's not going to chase her, for a variety of reasons: 1) he doesn't know how to get there, 2) gas is too expensive, 3) he can't breathe the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, and 4) he knows she doesn't even like him.

The pleading Miss You concerns a narrator with similar problems: "We'll hide it inside a box so I can pretend that it's not real / And for awhile believe you feel the same way you used to feel / And any minute you'll walk in the door and throw your arms around my neck / Or maybe it will be ice cold hands that want to strangle me to death." Musically the song sounds marries power pop to Motown. The "baby come home" backing vocals are an inspired touch, as is Jackson's Prince-ly falsetto on the song's final minute.

Red Stain concerns, well, a stain on a jacket. At first the narrator entertains notions that it might be wine or pen ink, but eventually reveals that it is in fact the spot where his girl ripped his heart out by telling him they were through. A cutting guitar lick accentuates this gruesomely thrilling tale.

But the mack daddy of this album's break-up songs is the sweepingly dramatic One-Seat Theatre. Here, Jackson skillfully employs a song-length metaphor wherein the song's hero imagines life as a movie and realizes his romance with the leading lady wasn't worthy of screen-time. "The scene distracted from the action / Your version has all the edits," he tells his former love, "But I'm stuck with the director's cut." As the song erupts into a final keyboard-driven outro, Jackson provides the album's title: "Now playing at the one-seat theatre / A film called Love Without a Future."

Lest you get the wrong idea, the album isn't all gloom. In fact Virgin Wood is the band's most unabashed love song since Drain the Sea. Goaded on by the excellent drums of Eric Fawcett, Jackson tells the tale of a couple who sneak into the forest to consummate their love. It sounds a little uncomfortable, but Jackson perfectly captures the passion of young love. As the song winds down things heat up: "So let it burn / out of control / Just like a fire fueled with gas / And dance around / Until we fall into a heap of human ash."

Jackson's contributions are rounded out by What She Wants, a brief stomper about a demanding woman, and the aforementioned instrumental closer Love Without A Future (The Director's Cut). The latter feels like the album's only unnecessary moment.

John Hermanson contributes too. Anyone familiar with Storyhill or Alvastar knows he can write a pop song, but he goes ahead and proves it anyway with Stacey, Only Dreaming, and Hold Your Own. Stacey is the best of the three, a buzzy, ambiguous ode to a faithful girl from a faithless guy, I think. Only Dreaming also fails to provide much clarity, but the multiple hooks (guitar, keys, glockenspiel, chorus) help one to happily ignore that fact. Hold Your Own is a catchy marching singalong that, as I mentioned before, morphs into an echo of The Edge of Medicine's closing moments ("It was a long way back / And we almost made it").

It's natural to wonder what this second album might have sounded like if Erik Appelwick had been involved beyond his cowriting credit on Hold Your Own and his guitar part on The Edge of Medicine. His Tapes 'n Tapes gig may pay the bills but it doesn't sufficiently display his talent (see the first Hopefuls album or any of his three Vicious Vicious discs for details). Plus, before he quit The Hopefuls, the band performed an unrecorded song about Lynda Carter (a.k.a. Wonder Woman). I still hold out hope that it'll one day see wax, plastic, or compressed data file.

But honestly, I can't imagine the album being much better than it already is, and that's a testament especially to Darren Jackson. The Hopefuls definitely took the long way back, but I think they sell themselves a bit short. They didn't almost make it. They went all the way.

Grade: A
Fave Song: One-Seat Theatre / Virgin Wood (tie)

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