Power Pop and Its Discontents
Five albums of hand claps, drum fills, and mopery.
Sloan A Sides Win: Singles 1992-2005 (Koch) Click
Power pop isn't derived from the Beatles, exactly; it's derived from bands that learned at the feet of the Beatles—Big Star, Badfinger, and the Raspberries. The Canadian power-pop quartet Sloan knows perfectly well that their boldest gestures, such as the lunging riff and the grandstanding drum fills of "Money City Maniacs," could have been scraped from the bottom of the Top 100 in 1974. But they play them with absolute conviction and—another power-pop hallmark—the utter, bitter certainty that they're being cheated out of the stardom they deserve. The song's chorus is a sneaky triple rhyme, which the band sneers in immaculate harmony: "And the joke is when he awoke his body was covered in Coke fizz." That's what happens when you lie down with pop.
Spoon Gimme Fiction (Merge) Click
Like Sloan, the Austin, Texas-based Spoon has been swimming upstream since the early '90s and has plumbed its underdog status for lyrical inspiration. In the first two lines of Gimme Fiction's"Sister Jack," singer/guitarist Britt Daniel articulates the two great themes of power pop: frustrated desire ("Always on the outside, always looking in") and the absurd machinations of the music world ("I was in this drop-D metal band we called Requiem"—Spoon's bassist Joshua Zarbo actually was!). If Daniel can't quite decide between his disaffected groan and his dramatic falsetto, that's formally appropriate: The whole song presents two things at once. It plays two sets of chords against each other, and inserts disparate bursts of string-scraping noise and low-mixed keyboards where a less imaginative band might have settled for a guitar solo.
Various Artists Yellow Pills: Prefill (Numero) Click
Valorizing one's outsider status naturally leads power pop to a fascination with the dusty crannies of its own history. Jordan Oakes compiled the Yellow Pills anthologies of half-forgotten power-pop records in the '90s; he's been lured out of semiretirement to put together Prefill, a new collection of the genre's really obscure circa-1980 nuggets. For example, the Toms were the alter ego of a New Jersey man named Tommy Marolda—the band should have been called the Snares, given the way he smacks the song "Sun" into the treble zone with every beat. (It's not an accident that another Prefill band was called the Treble Boys, or that the compilation also includes songs called "I Need That Record" and "You Need Pop"—power pop celebrates itself by invoking records and record collectors.) The song itself is uncomplicated third-generation psychedelia, but Marolda seems thrilled by it, decorating every second with chimes, whooshes, and clouds of one-man harmony.
Weezer Make Believe (Geffen) Click
On their fifth album, Weezer's auteur, Rivers Cuomo, is making no secret of being royally sick of stardom—ending your CD booklet with the lines from The Tempest in which Prospero breaks his staff isn't exactly subtle. The songs on Make Believe are so bulky that the album moves at the tempo of sarcastic slow-clapping. Its lyrics are exhausted, apologetic, and drenched in the language of recovery ("let it go, the damage in your heart"). The geeky fervor of their first few records is missing—it's hard to sound like you're longing for acceptance (in the way power pop demands) if you're already on the cover of Rolling Stone. Still, a few songs reveal splendid moments, especially "Perfect Situation," where a melody that flits about like a desperate moth gets shoved aside by a battering-ram chorus of "oh, oh, oh" and a nerd-guitar-hero solo.
The New Pornographers"Twin Cinema" (Matador) Click
An MP3 officially leaked in advance of the New Pornographers' third album (due in August), "Twin Cinema" is gloriously and typically cryptic. What band leader Carl Newman sings about between Kurt Dahle's drum flourishes is mostly nonsensical, except for the bit about a San Francisco intersection. Does Newman's high, imploring voice mean he's wound up about something? Who knows? What power pop has given him is a set of rules for arranging songs: When in doubt, add high harmonies. Make every repetition a little bit different somehow. More drum fills are always better. Any interval between ear-candy moments is too long. Tambourines make anything, no matter how chaotic, sound like you meant it that way. Attack every note like it's the only chance you'll ever have at a hit single, because that's what matters most.
Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.
Audio excerpts from: A Sides Win: Singles 1992-2005 © 2005 Koch Records; Gimme Fiction © 2005 Merge Records; Yellow Pills: Prefill © 2005 Numero; Make Believe © 2005 Geffen; "Twin Cinema" © 2005 Matador Records. All rights reserved.