I think I may need a new term to replace “pop music.”
I’m not really a genres guy, as a casual perusal of this website will show, and new split-off categories like emo and hick-hop and crunk and whiney-core mumble-prog-salsa or whatever else will have cropped up by the time I finish this sentence give me a rash. Music is music. It’s just that if I’m going to explain the appeal of something, I kind of have to give it a name, one with associations. Otherwise, you’ll have even less of an idea what I’m nattering on about than usual.
And “pop” is just a term that fills me with dismay. I love pop music. I’m sure there are bigger Beatles fans than me in the world, and probably in the metropolitan Chicago area even, but I wouldn’t bet my paltry freelancer check on it. While I admire all kinds of albums from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s the pop records that do it for me more often than not. I all but worship bands like Jellyfish, who worked their asses off in the early ‘90s to create two perfect albums full of joy and wonder. I love the Kinks, I love XTC, I love Elvis Costello and Sloan and Brian Wilson and Ben Folds.
To me, that’s all pop music – melody-centric, hummable, catchy and accessible. The problem is, pop as a term has come to mean sugary radio crap, and only sugary radio crap. The definition expands beyond Jessica Simpson and the contestants on American Idol, but that’s what the word has come to mean. The narrow purview of pop, defined by radio and MTV and marketing departments, leaves artists like Aimee Mann and Supergrass without a home.
Pop is not a word that really applies to most of what I love, anyway, because originally, it was short for “popular.” Thanks to the industry’s marketing machine, intelligent pop music hasn’t had a shot in hell of being popular in decades. I think the Beatles changed the established idea of what popular music can sound like, but they were astoundingly popular to the last, whereas artists that have taken from their lesson book remain marginalized, unable to pay their rent. I’ve just been reliably informed that the Dissociatives, whose excellent debut album was released in the U.S. in March, have sold less than 3,000 copies. It’s pop, but it sure isn’t popular, at least on these shores.
With all that, though, we are in something of a pop renaissance right now. My favorite album of the year so far, Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, wears its Brian Wilson influences on its sleeve. There’s a new crop of brilliant melody makers taking the reins from the old Brits, like the aforementioned Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright, but even beyond them, there’s a rejuvenated sense of song craft in some of the most celebrated young bands these days.
If there’s anyone in the indie scene that seems willing to grab the mantle of pop genius from the likes of Costello and Ray Davies, it’s A.C. Newman. Back when he was Carl Newman, he was one-fourth of Canadian popsters Zumpano, but he’s better known now as one of the guiding lights of the New Pornographers. The band took their name from Jimmy Swaggart’s oddball quote “Music is the new pornography,” and it’s less a band than a loose collective revolving around Newman, but also featuring singer Neko Case and Destroyer guitarist Dan Bejar.
Their third album is called Twin Cinema, and it’s their best and strangest work. It’s also the perfect opportunity for me to hopefully dispel this misconception that I’m anti-indie. I have been accused before of hating the indie sound, and while there’s some truth to that – I do like intricate productions and big, full sounds – the songs are much more important. Twin Cinema sounds like it was recorded in the same garage the White Stripes use, the occasional mariachi horn notwithstanding, but the songs are amazing, so it doesn’t matter. The problem I end up having with a lot of Pitchfork-recommended discs is that the songwriting is just as ramshackle as the guitar tones.
Not so here. Newman has proved, over two previous New Pornographers albums and a great solo disc (last year’s The Slow Wonder), that he just never runs out of melodies. Previous New Porn records have focused on short bursts of electrified pop, and while they’ve been catchy as all hell, I am happy to report that Twin Cinema takes it the next step. Newman displays an uncanny ability to write an epic track in less than four and a half minutes here, and his best songs infuse this album with a newfound serious side.
That’s not to say it doesn’t rock, because it does. “Use It” proves that the New Pornographers are the band Spoon thinks they are, and the spunky title track is delightfully trashy. But the best moments on Twin Cinema are the more bizarre ones – Case’s angelic vocals and Dave Carswell’s slide guitar on “The Bones of an Idol,” for instance. “The Bleeding Heart Show” starts as a light ballad, but ends up with an anthemic choral finale that reminded me of Dream Academy. (Remember them?) “Falling Through Your Clothes” spins about on a missed-beat refrain that sounds, on first listen, like your CD is skipping, while “These Are the Fables” lightly pirouettes its way into an unexpected piano-pounding coda. Newman’s songs (12 of the 15) are his most intricate, yet all are hummable and infectious.
Bejar takes three tracks here as well, and acquits himself nicely, particularly on “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” all stuttering stop-time beats. He’s not quite at Newman’s level, which weighs the album down a tad, but doesn’t kill it – he’s Colin Moulding to Newman’s Andy Partridge, if you will. His songs do bring up an interesting point about this band, though – they are such a democracy that they sometimes risk not having a solid identity. There are four singers, counting Nora O’Connor with Case, Bejar and Newman, and often the voices intertwine. Although most of the songs are Newman’s, no one personality steps out.
The upside of such collectivism is that the focus remains on the songs, where it ought to be. Twin Cinema closes with “Stacked Crooked,” a layered masterpiece of collapsing vocals and triumphant horns that fades out too quickly. But really, if that’s the worst complaint one can levy against this album, that it ends too soon, then Newman and company must be doing something right. In fact, after a few listens through this scuffed-up jewel of an album, I’d have to say that they’re doing something extraordinary.
But is it pop? I think it is, but many critics would come up with some other genre to place it in, or make up some cross-hybrid box for it. The definition of pop seems to hew closer to something like the Boston’s The Click Five, a group that touts itself as “new school power pop.” That description fits as well as anything, but to my ears, it’s just pop. It’s glossier, hookier and scrubbed a lot cleaner than the New Pornographers, but it’s pop, of the freewheeling and slightly cheesy variety that many will see as another hit to my already shaky credibility.
Yes, the Click Five are silly. They dress in matching suits, they have mop-top haircuts, and they look like teen idol models on the cover of their debut album, Greetings from Imrie House. The album comes with one of five randomly inserted trading cards – there is one for each member. Yes, trading cards, with bio information on the back. I got keyboardist Ben Romans, who apparently has blue eyes, likes baseball and went to see Weezer for his first concert. (I mentioned this to a friend of mine, and she said, “That makes me want to die.”)
Are they serious? Of course not. It’s a gimmick. But don’t let that keep you from the music, which is insanely catchy, gloriously cheeseball pop perfection. They went to the right collaborators for this fun little gem – Boston producer Mike Denneen (Guster, Aimee Mann) worked the boards, while the band co-wrote songs with Kiss’ Paul Stanley and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. (Schlesinger wrote the single, “Just the Girl,” the video for which depicts the band descending by helicopter to the roof of Paul Stanley High School. Uh huh.) Fountains is a good touchstone for this stuff, but unlike that band, which tends to orbit around silly pop with an ironic flair, the Click Five dives right in.
These songs are stupid, let’s get that out in the open. You cannot like this and still maintain a detached air of musical superiority. The Click Five will not make you cooler. Every song is about love and heartbreak, in the simplest, most ‘70s radio-rock way. But in embracing that, the band has delivered something borderline brilliant. This is steeped in decades of fun power pop, full of huge choruses, swirling vocals, driving guitars and pristine production. Anyone noting a heavy Cars influence would not be blowing smoke, but there’s more hiding behind these delirious harmonies. It’s very much like the 2005 version of the 1975 version of the 1962 Beatles, if that makes any sense.
The hooks on this thing are everywhere. I heard it once, and couldn’t stop humming it for hours, until I just had to hear it again. I didn’t want to – I tried to make myself hate this album, because it’s so syrupy and goofy, but I couldn’t. It’s impossible to object to this on purely musical grounds. The whole thing is so well-written, so perfectly disposable and effervescent. In fact, its disposability would be the most glaring drawback, if the band hadn’t so fully embraced it and made it the feature of the record. These songs will not change the world. These songs are not important. But they are super-groovy nifty-keen.
The Click Five are gimmicky, but they’re not prefab. “I’ll Take My Chances” is like the best prom theme you’ve ever heard, and one definitely gets the sense that these five could have chosen to write any type of music, and they picked prom themes. But by God, they wrote the hell out of them. There’s a sly nod in “Chances” to the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” which I think is telling. Six songs later, they’re crashing through a great cover of the Thompson Twins’ “Lies,” which just shows the huge range of pop influences they draw from.
The bottom line is, I think this is wonderful. It’s not about the suits, the trading cards or the video, it’s about the songs, and the Click Five have written an album full of sparkling, feel-good winners. Some may have to let go of the notion that music has to be Serious and Important to be worthwhile, but hell, there’s pop for those tastes, too – the New Pornographers are well on their way to becoming one of the most important bands of the decade. The Click Five will never be taken that seriously, nor should they be – they just make good, fun pop music. They’re a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.
So, do I need a new word that can encompass both A.C. Newman and the Click Five? I don’t know, I’m open to suggestions on that. I’m also open to the idea that pop represents music so joyous and unrestrained that there isn’t a word that can encompass it. Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, which means that mere language can’t adequately quantify it. Good pop music puts that big dumb grin on my face like nothing else, and if I ever come up with a word that fully describes that feeling, I’ll let you know. But I doubt I will.
See you in line Tuesday morning.