Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Some pop bands I like


Download: Ghosty--"Big Surrender"
Download: Okay--"Compass"
Download: The Spinto Band--"Brown Boxes"

At Team Clermont, we really like the pop music. Give us some solid hooks and a catchy chorus, and you'll put a smile on our face. It's just that easy. I love experimental music as much as the next guy (and I think Jon listens to nothing but noise bands, weird African records, indie pop, and classic rock), but I use it as an apertif as much as anything else. Put on a Merzbow record and then listen to "And Your Bird Can Sing" or Teenage Fanclub's "Start Again" and tell me that they don't sound perfect. Pop music just sounds like clarity to me, whether it comes from Kelly Clarkson or Bram Tchaikovsky. It sounds like what perfection sounds like in my head, the Platonic ideal of the perfect circle that can only be envisioned. Or something like that.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, in The Oxford American, once ran a great description about being in a pop band in an article on dearly departed Chris Bell (of personal faves Big Star):

Chilton said to Robert Gordon, "Most of the Big Star stuff was searching for how to get through two verses without saying anything really stupid.." Add "playing" to "saying," and you have as apt a description of the task involved in writing good pop songs as has ever been articulated. Great songwriters learn as much from listening to bad music as they do from listening to what they love. They memorize pitfalls, dead-ends; the how, as opposed to the what, of poor taste and cliché. It's a strange, hair-splitting science, since, let's face it, when you're thinking in Shostakovich terms, the distance between a Brian Wilson objet d'art and a breakfast-cereal jingle is about three atoms wide. For a pop songwriter, each new composition presents countless temptations and traps, moments when the song wants to become "stupid," wants to go to the obvious chord or rhyme, wants to sound too close, as opposed to just close enough, to what we've heard before. The game is to thread your way through these traps without sounding as if you're trying to be unpredictable—melodically, lyrically, in whatever way. And success comes when you've taken all the crap the genre gives you to work with—limited instrumentation, limited melodic possibilities, limited time—and made beauty of it, then disguised the beauty as more of the good ol' crap we like to hear when we turn on the radio. Isn't that precisely what makes those classics, like "Baby, It's You," so moving, so overwhelming, what makes you have to pull your car to the side of the road when they come on? The beauty in them is subversive. It doesn't belong. It's been smuggled in under the radar of suburban teenage taste and purchasing power. That's why pop music is the art for our time: It's an art of crap. And not in a self-conscious sense, not like a sculpture made of garbage and shown at the Whitney, which is only a way of saying that "low" materials can be made to serve the demands of "high" art. No, pop music really is crap. It's about transcending through crap. It's about standing there with your stupid guitar, and your stupid words, and your stupid band, and not being stupid.
I love that description: pop music is about doing something stupid, but not being stupid.

Anyway, here are some great new-ish pop bands that I adore:

Ghosty, from Lawrence, KS, plays with your built-in anticipation of chord progressions and structure while never once going for a cheap discordant move (a la a million Pixies rip-off bands out there). "Big Surrender" is one of their best. They're a killer live act, too. As with most power pop-ish units, we haven't heard enough about them. That's always the way it is, no?

Okay (the nom de plume of Marty Anderson) has released maybe the two best records of the year, Low Road and High Road, and no one seems to talking about that fact, except Music For Robots. Sure, the story behind Okay (that Marty is basically housebound because of a horrible illness) is compelling, but the music is what really kills me. It's a lesson in the power of simplicity (most of the songs rarely get past two chords) and a unique voice. "Compass" is as beautiful a song as I'll hear this year.

The Spinto Band hails from Delaware, home of credit card companies and um...drawing a blank here. The band's slightly goofy and youthful pop could cut steel. It's just insanely well-written. An office favorite. Apparently there is a bidding war over these guys, and it makes sense, but how many indie pop/power pop/pop rock bands besides Weezer or Matthew Sweet ever got really big? The road to success is littered with the bodies of Superdrag, Tommy Keene, and, well, Big Star (not that they didn't keep doing good music, mind you...I mean this from a strictly commercial perspective). Stay gold, Spinto Band. Stay gold.

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