I think the day I stop knowing how to let go and be silly is the day I will have finally grown old.
I know a lot of music fans who just can’t enjoy something unless it’s deathly serious and out to Say Something. Hell, below you’ll find my second quarter report, and it’s chock full of important albums with resonant themes and a serious air. But I also love the silly. I love music that makes me grin like an idiot, and dance around the room. I love catchy, fun tunes with nothing to say.
I get a lot of flack for that. If you’re a Serious Critic, you’re not supposed to like effervescent, fun pop. You’re supposed to hoist your nose in the air and describe it with words like “lightweight” and “disposable.” I hesitate to point this out, but the Beatles, often considered the greatest pop band ever, specialized in lightweight and disposable. I love those records, and I love their modern antecedents, bands with nothing more on their minds than to write well-crafted, fun songs that bring a smile.
So when Adam Young sings, “Reality is a lovely place, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” I know how he feels. Young is Owl City, and that line comes within the first two minutes of his new album, All Things Bright and Beautiful. Young plays bubbly synth-pop, complete with liberal use of the auto-tune and – best of all, as far as I’m concerned – no hint whatsoever that he is in any way kidding. This is the candy-coated, fun, infectious music he makes, and he doesn’t care who hates it.
And man, do people hate it. Speaking just for my own corner of the world, I hope Young appreciates all the bullets I’ve taken for him. I love Owl City, pretty much unreservedly, and it’s been suggested more than once that I should turn in my critic’s card for such an offense. What can I say? Young’s music makes me smile. I am getting a little tired of defending it, but I’ll try again to explain what I like about it.
First, though, I want to deal with this Postal Service thing, because it really bothers me. The Postal Service, if you didn’t know, was a one-time collaboration between Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie) and electronic artist Jimmy Tamborello. They made one album, a cold and skeletal thing that married Gibbard’s high, even voice with whirring beats and minimal synth noises.
Adam Young also has a high, even voice, and he uses synthesizers. This has led critic after critic to cry foul and accuse Young of ripping Gibbard and Tamborello off. I think that’s lazy and simplistic. I also think Owl City makes music so silly, so uncool, that the Postal Service guys would never even dream of doing it. Give Up, the Postal Service’s one album, is a self-serious mope through a rainy cityscape. Owl City albums are delirious peppermint trolley rides through Candy Land.
Just listen to the second track on this new record, “Deer in the Headlights.” It’s my favorite, but that’s because it’s just so… goofy. The opening piano arpeggios give way to a zipline synth bass, a riff that would be rocking in a different context. And then Young, auto-tuned and fresh-faced, sings this: “Met a girl in the parking lot, and all I did was say hello, her pepper spray made it awful hard for me to walk her home…” The chorus is similarly charming and silly: “Didn’t you know love could shine this bright? Well, smile, because you’re the deer in the headlights…”
All the while, candy-coated synths provide a glimmering sheen. It’s fun! It’s singable, hummable, danceable fun. And that rarely lets up on All Things Bright and Beautiful. It does get weightier – an introductory benediction for the Space Shuttle Challenger astronauts gives way to “Galaxies,” a stomping shout-out to God – but not much. And the better tracks are the ones with nothing serious on their minds, like “The Yacht Club”: “I stood under the waterfall with a kiwi pineapple parasol, as Cinderella dropped the crystal ball, and made a concrete caravan of caterpillar concert hall.”
If those lyrics have you cringing right now, Owl City’s probably not for you. But this is joyous, dance-in-the-rain music that doesn’t care how uncool it is. Some of this album stumbles – the duet with Breanne Duren, “Honey and the Bee,” is a bit too twee for its own good, and “Hospital Flowers” doesn’t quite hang together.
But elsewhere, Young tries on new styles, new wrinkles in his sound, and they suit him well. He shouts his way through “Kamikaze,” leaving the auto-tune behind, and invites rapper Shawn Christopher to contribute a verse to “Alligator Skies.” He collaborates with Matthew Thiessen of Relient K on the closing song, “Plant Life,” and it’s an epic. It’s warm and romantic (“If I were to tug on your heart strings, would you strum on mine”) but also terribly silly (“I’d rather waltz than just walk through the forest, the trees keep the tempo and they sway in time…”).
The bottom line is this: Adam Young appears to live in a world where everything is bursting with color, and joy is in the air he breathes. This is a place I’d love to live as well. Owl City’s music takes me there, and makes me love life. I can’t say it any simpler than that. Young is really on to something here – his skill as an arranger keeps improving, and here he seems even more willing to let his sense of wonder overtake him.
And that’s the key. Owl City music is full of wonder, and that’s what makes comparisons with the Postal Service irrelevant. Adam Young is on a delightful trip all his own, and even though it’s defiantly, ridiculously uncool, I love it dearly.
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I had high hopes for our other two silly pop bands this week, but both of them let me down, to varying degrees.
First up is The Feeling, for my money one of the best British pop bands of the past few years. They burst out of the gate in 2006 with Twelve Stops and Home, which contained four of the finest pop singles I’d heard in years. (The rest of the record was pretty damn good too.) Then, in 2008, they refined and exploded their sound on Join With Us, which played like five decades of British pop distilled into an hour of delight. I honestly hadn’t heard a pop album so detailed, so bursting with sound, since Jellyfish’s 1993 masterpiece Spilt Milk.
So of course, I’ve been breathlessly anticipating their third album. And now that it’s here, I’m not sure what I think. It’s called Together We Were Made, and in the edition I bought, it spans 25 songs (26 if you count the bonus track) over two discs. And it’s… not bad, but not as extraordinary as I was hoping. To use a McCartney analogy, if Join With Us was Band on the Run, then Together We Were Made is London Town. It’s perfectly acceptable, but doesn’t dazzle.
In fact, it just kind of… happens. Many of these songs rely on grooves instead of melodies, and the band makes more use of synthesizers and drum loops than in the past. Sonically, it’s all just mid-range mush. Nothing about it leaps out of the speakers and takes you dancing. On past Feeling albums, I’ve had trouble picking my favorites. Here, I have trouble picking the songs I remember.
Some of them stand out. “Say No” is a classic Dan Gillespie-Sells piano ballad, and “Another Soldier” makes fine use of its creepy string section. “Leave Me Out of It” is an adult-contemporary slog, but Sophie Ellis-Bextor turns in a fine guest vocal performance. I like a lot of the second disc better (despite the fact that the band considers these tracks lesser works – the discs are titled The Birds and The Bees), like the groovy “Dia De Los Muertos.”
The best song of the lot, though, is the epic closer of disc one, “Undeniable.” Still, this is a sound the Feeling did better on “The Greatest Show on Earth” last time out. I’m not exactly sure what happened here, but instead of the pop giants I was expecting, the Feeling sounds mortal and earthbound here. This album isn’t bad, but it isn’t the stunner of which this band is capable. It’s a bunch of pretty good songs, nothing more.
And then there’s Ann Arbor, Michigan quintet Tally Hall. Their 2008 debut was called Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, and they all dress in white shirts with color-coded ties. They’re practically overflowing with quirk. But Marvin’s is a tremendous pop album, novelty or no – from first note to last, it’s just so much fun. Ukulele odes to bananas, a song pledging love to both Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, a tune introducing the band, carnival barker-style, called “Welcome to Tally Hall” – this thing is a delirious trip.
In the intervening years, Tally Hall has apparently been dropped from Atlantic Records, and in the process, they’ve lost their sense of humor. The new one, Good & Evil, is a self-released affair, and it’s a mature pop record, full of good-to-great acoustic tunes. The band still makes use of fantastic vocal harmonies, and their sense of melody remains undiminished.
But this just isn’t nearly as much fun as I had hoped. Only one song, “Turn the Lights Off,” reaches the heights of the prior record. The rest is well-written, fine pop music, especially “&” and “Hymn for a Scarecrow,” but it’s dour-faced, as if the band decided they were tired of being typed as a novelty act. There’s no chance of that here, but there’s also no chance this album will bring as many smiles.
Good & Evil concludes with a true epic, “Fate of the Stars,” and the band pulls it off well. In fact, as mature pop albums go, this one is pretty splendid. But it’s not why I liked Tally Hall. This album strips away most of what I found original and invigorating about them. I can’t fault the record – it does what it’s supposed to, and with a few more listens, I may fall in love with it. But right now, it’s only making me remember how much I liked Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum. Next time, they need to remember how to let go and be silly again. It suits them.
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All right, it’s time for the Second Quarter Report.
What’s that, you ask? Well, I keep a running top 10 list every year, and at the end of each quarter, I share that work-in-progress, so you can see my thought process. Essentially, this is what my list would look like if I were forced to finalize it right now. But I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t mind that at all. The year could stop six months early and this list would suit me fine. Check it out:
10. Lady Gaga, Born This Way.
9. R.E.M., Collapse Into Now.
8. The Boxer Rebellion, The Cold Still.
7. Elbow, Build a Rocket Boys.
6. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender.
5. The Violet Burning, The Story of Our Lives.
4. Bon Iver.
3. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake.
2. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues.
1. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What.
I mean, really. Just look at that list. That’s tremendous. And we have six months left.
See you in line Tuesday morning.