Fizzy Pop Goodness
Escape with Tinted Windows and The Bird and the Bee

I’m not going to lie to you, folks. It’s been pretty miserable out there.

The national economy is in shambles. Jobs are scarce, and layoffs are happening everywhere. My chosen industry is collapsing around me, and even the brightest minds in my field can’t figure out how to stop the bleeding. And to top it all off, Michael Bay has actually made a second Transformers movie, which will infect our movie theaters in just a few short weeks.

With all that, it would be easy to give in to despair. Sensitive souls like myself need reasons to be cheerful, to borrow a phrase, lest we crumble into sobbing heaps, lamenting the state of things. We need distractions, escapes – as much as I love challenging, serious art, in times like these I appreciate a well-crafted, silly pop song more than just about anything else.

So all things considered, there’s never been a better time for a band like Tinted Windows.

The members of Tinted Windows have been very good about avoiding the word “supergroup.” It’s a term that doesn’t really fit them anyway – it usually refers to a bunch of egotists producing bloated, pretentious garbage that will always play second fiddle to the members’ regular gigs. But they’ve been gaining a lot of mileage from their jaw-dropping lineup anyway, and it’s the first thing you’re going to want to know about them, so here it is.

Tinted Windows is guitarist James Iha from the Smashing Pumpkins, bassist Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, drummer Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick, and vocalist Taylor Hanson, of (you guessed it) Hanson. He’s the youngest at 26, Carlos the oldest at 57. It’s an incredibly strange assemblage of people, some of which you wouldn’t think would have the connections they do – Iha and Schlesinger, for example, co-own Scratchie Records, and Schlesinger has known Hanson for years, ever since he was tapped to write some songs for Taylor and his siblings.

What could this possibly sound like? How about the coolest cheeseball power pop since the likes of T. Rex and the Raspberries? Yeah, you betcha. The band’s self-titled debut, recorded in three days, is the most fun I’ve had in 35 minutes this year.

One of the big draws for me is hearing more Adam Schlesinger songs. I’m a big fan of Fountains of Wayne’s joyous melodicism, although Schlesinger has a reputation for being a bit too clever with that band. Not so here – while the bubbly pop melodies are intact (boy, are they ever), the lyrics are almost goofy in their simplicity. This is boy-meets-girl power pop, and despite a song called “Dead Serious,” it’s just frothy fun all the time. (There’s one song in which the protagonist repeatedly refers to the object of his affection as “my cha cha.” That’s the chorus.)

What’s fascinating about listening to Tinted Windows is just how well the quartet has preserved the individual components of their sound. First track (and first single) “Kind of a Girl” is the sort of effervescent teen-pop gem the Click Five are so good at, but the guitar sound is pure James Iha, thick and strident. Bun E. Carlos’ drumming is rock-solid, just as it’s been with Cheap Trick for decades.

And of course, there is Taylor Hanson. I’ve been taking shit for years for digging Hanson, but these 11 (well, 10 – Iha sings one) songs should prove that Taylor is a born frontman. His high, strong, appealing voice has never sounded better to these ears, and his years singing silly pop songs with his main band have prepared him well for these harder-edged, but no less silly tunes here. Listen to how he carries “Can’t Get a Read on You” on his back, and his own songwriting contribution “Nothing to Me” is easily the equal of Schlesinger’s songs.

In my more lucid moments, I understand that I can’t recommend this record without qualifying it, for fear of losing my Serious Music Critic credibility. God forbid anyone think I consider Tinted Windows high art, or that I’m mistaking lines like “I got love, if you want it, say the word and I’m on it” for poetry. I mean, who just enjoys music anymore? It all has to Mean Something Important, or it’s no good, right?

But then I remember that I’m the guy who included Greetings from Imrie House on my top 10 list, and I’m the guy who highly recommended Phantom Planet and Def Leppard and Roger Manning, and who named Silverchair’s Young Modern the best of the year in ‘07. Most recently, I’m the guy who actually kind of liked Chris Cornell’s record with Timbaland, which many dismissed as the ultimate sellout. Fizzy, disposable pop is part of my DNA, and I somehow doubt I have any Serious Music Critic credibility left.

So yeah, I love Tinted Windows. If you’re hungry for the days of Big Star and the Knack and the Nazz and, hell, even Cheap Trick, you will love this. It takes a lot of skill to craft silly pop that’s this infectious, this much fun. For 35 blissful minutes, I’m unable to stop tapping my foot, and I can’t seem to wipe the goofy grin off my face. It’s everything a disposable pop record ought to be.

Still, it’s pretty short. If you’re looking for something else to lift your spirits, may I suggest Ray Guns are Not Just the Future, the second album from The Bird and the Bee?

This band with the funny name is a musical collaboration between singer Inara George (the bird) and multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin (the bee). How to describe what they do? Imagine if Portishead were a lounge act, kind of. Imagine ‘50s torch songs with modern production. Imagine quirky, almost European pop songs delivered with warmth and wonder. Imagine fun float music that lifts you up with it. Hell, I don’t know. I just really like it.

The immediate attraction is George’s voice, lighter than feathers, almost sultry, but not quite. You can picture a jazz-age crooner draped across a piano, but then envision this same girl working as a librarian by day. Kurstin paints delightfully cheesy keyboard landscapes for her to dance across, like the music you’d hear piped into the most fascinating elevator ever. He throws in samples and orchestral flourishes sparingly – the core remains the trippy beats and tonic water keyboards, and it’s enough.

The highlight comes early. “Diamond Dave” is, in fact, a love letter to David Lee Roth, delivered as seriously as anything here – that is to say, with a wink. “When you left the band, I couldn’t understand it,” George purrs, “but I’ve forgiven you now that you’ve recommitted.” It’s wonderful – when George tells Dave that “no one can hold a candle, nothing else is quite the same,” she could be talking about her own fantasies, or the Sammy Hagar years.

The record never quite hits those dizzy heights again, but it’s all smile-inducing stuff. “Ray Gun” sounds like it’ll be a spacey downer, until the delightful chorus kicks in. You’ve never heard anyone sing lines like “I’m stuck inside the walls of all this inner strife” with such bliss. And you have to hear “Love Letter to Japan,” an East-meets-West fantasia that bounces forward on a video game beat and a sprightly, infectious melody. I don’t know what kind of song this is, but I love it.

Ray Guns are Not Just the Future isn’t the immediate tab of ecstasy Tinted Windows is – for one thing, it’s much smarter – but it’s a bubbly joy nevertheless. It’s another one of those records I bought on a whim, and I’m so glad I did, if for no other reason than to hear Inara George coo her way through “You’re a Cad,” a jazzy late-album hunk of delicious. (And for “Diamond Dave,” of course.) It’s music with nothing on its mind except brightening your life, and at that, it succeeds marvelously.

And hey, if you still have a hankering for super-fun, super-silly music after all that, try this: the new Click Five song is called “I Quit! I Quit! I Quit!” and I can’t stop singing it. Enjoy.

This weekend, I’m headed to Burbank, California for a friend’s wedding. I’m still going to try to write a column up, but it will probably be a short one. Ah, but the week after that, I have something special in store, and I, for one, am really looking forward to it. Ooh! Suspenseful!

See you in line Tuesday morning.