Hey, it’s America’s birthday! Happy birthday, America! Take the rest of the day off.
As you read this, I am on my first ever paid vacation. That’s right, first ever, from any job. I’m way too old for that to be the case, but it is. And it’s still a new concept for me – I’m chilling in Massachusetts, hanging out with old friends and watching the Transformers movie, and I’m getting paid for it. That’s five kinds of pretty cool.
America’s not the only one celebrating a birthday this week – Radiohead’s OK Computer turned 10 on July 1. I remember when I first heard it, on cassette through headphones while on vacation in Florida. I hesitate to admit this now, but I didn’t really like it upon first listen – it was cold and difficult and shorn of the anthemic grandeur of The Bends. But a couple more spins and everything clicked. The coldness, as just about every reviewer since has said, is the point, and the grandeur is still there, buried under a brilliantly oppressive, icy veneer.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that OK Computer sounds dated now – it sounds like the template for the last 10 years, as dozens of bands have stolen elements of its sound. That Jonny Greenwood guitar is everywhere, and half the singers on the planet now try to emulate the quivery tenor of Thom Yorke’s voice. Some bands have based their entire careers on aping Radiohead. (I’m looking at you, Muse.) Even Nigel Godrich’s production techniques, which sounded like the future in ’97, are now commonplace among “ambitious” bands who want to sound “serious.”
But most people forget that it’s the songs that make this album. Even lesser numbers like the plaintive closers “Lucky” and “The Tourist” keep the melodies front and center, and monsters like “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police” are unstoppable, multi-part excursions that never just coast along. Some will argue that you can overthink an album to death, but OK Computer is a grand example of striking that balance perfectly – every second of it was planned in advance and meticulously crafted, but it sounds so very alive.
I still think of OK Computer as the best album of the 1990s, because no other record of the time took music as a whole and pushed it forward quite like that one did. Other bands of the time were busy looking backwards, still trying to sop up the commercialized punk throwback wave that crashed when Kurt Cobain died, but Radiohead was one of the only bands seeking out new ideas while keeping their sense of melody and complexity. They soon chucked all that over the bridge with Kid A and its sequels, which turned a once-great act into meandering technology whores, but in 1997, they were the greatest band on earth.
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What better way to celebrate OK Computer’s birthday than by talking about an album that’s its polar opposite in nearly every way?
I talk a good game when it comes to liking intricate, artistically ambitious music, but as long-time readers no doubt have figured out, nothing quite pushes my particular buttons like well-crafted pop music. My favorite band is the Beatles, and even though I love their revolutionary epics like “A Day in the Life,” I’m also a dumbstruck fanboy of the perfect two-minute breezy pop of their first five albums. In the past, I’ve put records by Matthew Sweet, Phantom Planet, Sloan and Fountains of Wayne on my top 10 list. I won’t deny it – I have a weakness for that sugary-sweet melody rush.
I’m used to the ration of shit I have to endure whenever I recommend a so-silly-it’s-wonderful pop record, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the metric ton of feces I got for putting the Click Five’s groovy debut, Greetings from Imrie House, into my 2005 top 10 list. Virtually no one I know heard what I still hear in that album. Maybe it’s the matching suits and haircuts, or maybe it’s the ill-advised tours with Ashlee Simpson and the like, or perhaps the band just takes too much from 1960s romance-pop for a lot of people, but Imrie House made a lot of people question my taste.
But listen to the record. It’s a blast. It is a gleaming, perfect little nugget of power pop, and if the subject matter leans a little heavily into prom theme territory, it’s the same kind of delightful cheese that’s all over “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” or “She Loves You.” The Click Five are absolutely in on their own joke, winking at you while delivering goofy, infectious tunes like “Catch Your Wave” and “Just the Girl.” Nothing here will change your life, nothing here will make you a more musically sophisticated person, and nothing here will increase your credibility in the eyes of Pitchfork readers. Imrie House is just a knowing, well-crafted good time that draws on decades of similar, sweet pop music.
The debut was such a sugar rush that I doubt they could have done it again. As it happened, though, circumstances intervened, and the Click Five of 2007 is a very different proposition. For one, lead singer Eric Dill is out – he reportedly wanted to bring the group into a more hard-hitting direction, and the rest of the band resisted. Dill did stick around long enough to film Taking Five, a Hard Day’s Night-style movie starring the quintet, but he left soon after.
Dill’s replacement is Kyle Patrick, whose voice is similarly strong, but lower and more direct. The band probably could have made another Imrie House with Patrick, but instead they’ve chosen to diversify on their second record, Modern Minds and Pastimes. And the result is a slightly better album that, paradoxically, just isn’t nearly as much fun.
Where Imrie House flashed by in a blur, every song drawing from the same power-pop well, no two songs on Modern Minds sound quite alike. The band has brought in a strong new wave influence (and funny how we still call a sound more than two decades old “new wave”), especially on synth-driven tracks like “Addicted to Me.” They tread into Def Leppard territory on “Happy Birthday,” crank up the amps on the near-punk “When I’m Gone,” and deliver another great prom theme with “The Reason Why.”
Two tracks in particular are genuine surprises. “Headlight Disco” might yank the rug out hardest, with its convincing 1970s four-on-the-floor stomp – check out Ethan Mentzer’s elastic bass line, and the wonderfully cheesy female vocals after the choruses. This is the goofiest song here, and it’s contrasted with the closer, “Empty,” a forlorn acoustic ballad that morphs into a Weezer-style finale. “Empty” is pretty much the first Click Five song that demands you take it seriously, which leads us to the biggest problem with Modern Minds – they’ve stopped winking.
More on that in a second, because I want to be clear about something – every single song on Modern Minds is chock full of hooks and memorable melodies, and while there are a couple of lesser lights (most notably the idiotic “Happy Birthday,” but also “Long Way to Go” and second-tier ballad “I’m Getting Over You”), nothing here is bad. In fact, many of these songs are better than their counterparts on Imrie House, and overall, the Click Five has crafted a superior follow-up.
So why don’t I like it as much? I mentioned before that it’s certainly not as much fun. Most of these songs are about adolescent heartbreak, and it’s a subject that just can’t stand up to solemn treatments. It’s a shift in tone – where Imrie House was effervescent, Modern Minds is more down-to-earth. It is, in a way, this band’s Pinkerton.
Case in point. The first single from Imrie House was “Just the Girl,” a song about a teenage boy in wide-eyed love with a frustrating girl out of his reach, and it was a fizzy number that melted in your mouth. The first single from Modern Minds is “Jenny,” about a similar situation – the guy has been dating the girl for a while now, and she’s still frustrating, in a much more real way. “Jenny” is as close to a classic pop song as this album gets, but it isn’t a shiny happy gem like “Just the Girl.” And songs like “Addicted to Me,” a junkie anthem sung from the drugs’ point of view, and “When I’m Gone,” which may be about the end of a relationship or about sudden death, only add to the comparatively solemn mood.
One might guess that Kyle Patrick just has a rougher perspective than Eric Dill does, but it’s keyboard whiz Ben Romans who wrote most of these songs, as he did on Imrie House. It’s just a shift in tone for the band, and while the Click Five template is still there – crashing guitars, glittering synths, stacked harmonies, and melodies galore – the fun is mostly missing. On Modern Minds, the Click Five sound like a really good power pop band with an eye towards the Kelly Clarkson market. But on Imrie House, they sounded like the most delightfully stupid-smart power pop band in the world.
Still, I don’t want to downplay just how enjoyable this new album is. It’s a testament to the strength of these songs that I remembered every one of them after only hearing the record once, and it’s only grown in stature with me since. I’m going to get shit for recommending the Click Five again, but I can’t do anything but recommend an album so full of terrific tunes. Music like this takes me back to when I was a kid, back when a song like “All I Need is You” would have set me humming for days. It’s that soft spot again – I can’t help it. Songs like “Flipside” and “Jenny” just make me want to listen again and again.
So, in summary, the Click Five have survived the loss and replacement of their lead singer with only minimal damage, and they’ve grown up in some unfortunate ways. But they’ve still made a great little pop record with Modern Minds and Pastimes, and even though the cliché would call for the band to break up for good in a year or so, I hope this is just the first chapter in a longer story. The glimmering pop band of Imrie House is no longer with us, but this Click Five is still very good, and Modern Minds is still one of the most hummable, most immediately memorable records I’ve heard this year.
Everything’s different now, everything’s the same. The Click Five is dead, long live the Click Five.
Next week, well, we have some choices – there are new records from the Smashing Pumpkins, Spoon, Crowded House, They Might Be Giants, Interpol, Bad Religion, and Nick Drake. The following week will see new ones from the Chemical Brothers, Rooney, Emerson Hart, Teddy Thompson and Suzanne Vega. It’s a good time to be alive.
See you in line Tuesday morning.