Pop Is Not a Four-Letter Word
Two of the Year's Best from Sixpence and the Elms

Just to prove how difficult and painful democracy can sometimes be, I fell down a flight of stairs on Tuesday.

These aren’t just any stairs, either. No, Captain Clutzo only selects the highest quality concrete upon which to injure himself. In my defense, it was raining rather heavily here, and my shoes were wet, and I was kind of in a hurry. As many folks in this fine country can tell you, gravity loves a fat man, and the slightest loss of footing is enough to spill the larger of us into her waiting embrace, which may be the wrong metaphor considering it left me with three large bruises and an irritating and painful stiffness.

But here’s the funny part. Tuesday was actually the second time I have fallen down that same staircase. I was on my way to vote, you see, and my polling center is the Augustana Lutheran Church here in Hobart. Like most churches, Augustana Lutheran celebrates its own magnificence by being huge and full of steep staircases one must ascend or descend to get anywhere within them. I had only been in the building once before – for May’s primary election, when I tumbled down the same set of stairs and came away with similar bruises.

And now the Republicans control Congress. Mock me if you will, but I think my personal pain is merely an omen to the country, a metaphorical sign of national bruises we shall soon bear. And, perhaps, it’s a sign that God just doesn’t want me in a church, or at least a Lutheran church. Both explanations make me feel quite a bit better than the obvious one I’m failing to mention: I am probably the biggest clumsy-ass spaz in the northern hemisphere.

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If, like me, you need some perking up after the assorted ouchies of election day, I have just the thing – two examples of pure pop joy. I get taken to task fairly often for liking this sort of thing, mainly because I know a lot of music snobs who equate sweet and happy with commercial and useless. There are people I know that will not listen to an album more than once if it made them smile, as if wallowing in the muck of deep anguish and glowering angst were any more of a valid artistic expression. Jagged little pills are not inherently more artistic than mouth-melting mints. Pop is not a four-letter word, especially if it’s well made and doesn’t insult your intelligence.

Sixpence None the Richer have never insulted my intelligence. Well, there was that one “Kiss Me” song, but who remembers that?

Five years ago, Sixpence released their self-titled album, which many assumed was their first. Actually, it was their third full-length, not counting a nifty EP that directly preceded it, and it showcased a major growth in sound and style, featuring all manner of bizarre instruments, dramatic arrangements and even a song in 11/8 sung in Spanish. It contained exactly one simplistic throwaway, their first, which naturally became their breakout hit.

A bittersweet moment, to be sure, for while I was thrilled to see such a great band get national exposure, I was also sure that most everyone who bought the self-titled album would hate it. Sixpence needed a follow-up album quickly, one that capitalized on the pop style of “Kiss Me” without degenerating into crap. In short, they needed to craft the most intelligent yet accessible pop album on the stands, and they needed to do it in 1999.

Instead, they took four years off. That’s not exactly accurate, of course – the band finished draft one of their follow-up record in ’99, but their label (Steve Taylor’s tiny Squint Entertainment) ran out of money and couldn’t release it. To his credit, Taylor tried everything he could, but financial and legal entanglements kept the new Sixpence out of record stores until last week. Considering Squint was the second label to go belly-up on them, the band was probably not too happy, and when the title of the new album was announced as Divine Discontent, I was not surprised.

What did surprise me was hearing the whole thing at this year’s Cornerstone festival. Sixpence closed the week out with a midnight show made up almost entirely of new songs, and on first listen, they were sweet, light, gorgeous and perfect pop tunes. Despite its title, Divine Discontent is pretty much a bitterness-free zone. It’s also, upon reflection, the sublimely enjoyable, intelligent pop album I mentioned above, and if they had released it three years ago, they’d have been the biggest band on the planet.

Divine Discontent opens with two number one singles, in a perfect world. Actually, the world may well be heading towards perfection, as “Breathe Your Name,” the opening cut, is all over the airwaves. It’s easily one of the great pop songs of our time, effortlessly encapsulating the magic of a well-written melody in a terrific pop arrangement. “Tonight” is every bit as good, if a bit punchier, and should be every bit as popular.

Most of the attention showered on the band has been given to angelic-voiced frontwoman Leigh Nash, as can be seen on the back cover photo, which (unintentionally, I’m sure) resembles the argument-starting t-shirt design from Almost Famous. The secret weapon of this band is musical genius Matt Slocum – he’s the guy slouching off to the right in that photo – and his ear for arrangements that grab you every few seconds. Slocum’s guitar tone is full, rich and captivating, even on something simple like “I’ve Been Waiting,” and when he gets atmospheric on “A Million Parachutes,” it’s breathtaking. Slocum also plays cello and arranges the band’s string parts, most effectively on the lilting “Melody of You.”

Sixpence do make two boneheaded blunders here, which keep the record frustratingly shy of excellent. First, they do another ill-advised cover of a British pop song, in this case Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” but instead of appending it to the end of the album, they try to incorporate it at track four, and it just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t help that the song, the only one not produced by Slocum and Paul Fox, is gooped up in a sugary Corrs-like arrangement. No amount of cheese can keep “Don’t Dream It’s Over” from being one of the best pop tunes of all time, but this arrangement comes perilously close to ruining it.

The second mistake is less obvious, but more damaging, I think. At their Cornerstone show, Sixpence closed with an amazing, dramatic number called “Dizzy,” full of pianos and cascading guitars that crash into a quiet and beautiful conclusion. Any producer worth his salt would have told the band to end with that one – it’s the perfect album closer, and it’s even better on record than it was live. Unfortunately, they sequenced it third from the end, which has the unfortunate effect of making the final two songs sound like insignificant bonus tracks. When you hear it, you’ll understand – this is such an obvious blunder that I think I’d have noticed even if I hadn’t seen them close with “Dizzy” in concert.

While these errors certainly mar Divine Discontent, they don’t destroy it, and it certainly stands as one of my favorite records of the year so far. If the general public catches up with Sixpence again after five long years, embracing this near-perfect pop confection as it has the single, my long-since-lapsed faith in humanity may be restored. This is almost exactly the album they needed to make, and it’s one of the best examples of pop with a brain, sugar that’s good for you. It’s also surprisingly, overwhelmingly positive – far from discontented, and very nearly divine.

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I feel lucky to have discovered this next band, one of the brightest lights of the next generation, in the same year that I also discovered Phantom Planet. Those lamenting the death of the song on radio can rejoice, ’cause as the Who said so many years ago, the kids are alright.

Last year, the Elms appeared with an album fittingly titled Big Surprise. Who could have guessed that four lads from Seymour, Indiana could beat the Brit-Poppers at their own game? Like an American Sloan, the Elms borrowed liberally from a number of sources, mostly ’60s and ’70s British rock, and crafted their own sound, part throwback and part glorious revolution. The songs were the thing, of course, and these songs, all from the brain of singer/guitarist Owen Thomas, were marvelous. When the album cover pictures revealed them to be mere kids, I was… well, surprised.

In less than a year’s time, the Elms have somehow gotten exponentially better. I smelled sophomore slump when they revealed the title of their second album: Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll. I mean, how pompous can one band get? Astoundingly, the album lives up to its title, providing a dozen glittering, perfect reminders of when songwriting skill was a valued commodity. Nearly every song is a classic, a singalong festival that burns itself into your brain.

Seriously, go buy this album (only ten bucks at Best Buy), stick it in and press play. If opener “Speaking in Tongues” doesn’t have you grinning like a three-year-old on a sugar binge and bouncing about the room, I’ll… well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but something embarrassing. If that song doesn’t work for you, try the melodic perfection of “Burn and Shine,” the lighter-worthy “Come to Me” or the chorus of “na-na-nas” that opens “Happiness.”

The Elms have somehow tapped into the primal power of pop, writing songs that fill some inner need that you didn’t even know you had until you hear them. These are songs you’ve heard a million times, and each time is like the first. They’re the future perennial hits of classic rock radio, the songs that grab the torch from every great pop song ever written. Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll breaks exactly no new ground, but it doesn’t have to. It revels in the soaring choruses of yesterday, and the eternal joy of melody and harmony meeting rhythm and taking her out for a dance. It’s one of the most enjoyable albums you’ll hear this year, and it’s hopefully just a taste of things to come from this dynamic young band.

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It’s just coincidence that both bands this week have ties to the Christian music industry. Both tackle spirituality in such a way that if you’re not looking for it, you probably won’t find it. This tactic upsets some within the Christian industry, but it suits me just fine – I’m always looking for intelligent spirituality, but I have no qualms playing either of these bands for anyone, even the more militant atheists I know. Like a lot of U2 albums, the spiritual content is there if you want it, but invisible if you don’t.

Next week, some fringe-y stuff like Sigur Ros and Ours, or maybe that new Pearl Jam.

See you in line Tuesday morning.