Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pure Pop for Now People

NOTE: The grading system has been eradicated. I began to feel it was too arbitrary, and when I was spending five minutes sitting at my keyboard deciding between a B- and a B, I knew it was a silly pursuit. Just read the reviews. They should give you the idea.

Thank you, patient readers, for waiting for me for so long. I apologize, it's been three weeks since my last post, but I have a pair of Power-Pop reviews, and this will be followed up in the coming days by reviews of the latest from The Flaming Lips, The Cribs, and Raekwon. Yes, that Raekwon.

My Old, Familiar Friend
Brendan Benson

Brendan Benson, for those in the know (and who isn't?), is the other leader of Jack White's Raconteurs project. He used to be, at any rate, before White did that thing he inevitably does where he takes control. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but it's a habit worth noting. At any rate, Benson is responsible for "Steady As She Goes," the best moment in the Raconteurs' collected output, and he was behind much of the first album. His is a very pure pop style; this is a man who listens to a lot of Big Star. The early Big Star, that is. Or, if he does listen to Third/Sister Lovers, he doesn't let it show.

At any rate, this is perky, perky, perky stuff. Emphasis on that last "perky." Opener "A Whole Lot Better" is a barnstormer of a single. It has the instant familiarity of a great single, sounding like it came out sometime around, oh, 1976. Yeah, that sounds about right. It also, as a perk, features a legitimately wonderful, simple lyric; "I change my mind every time that the wind blows," he sings with such enthusiasm that you can't help but think that may not be such a bad thing. It's on the radio from time to time, and you, yes, you, should check it out.

Unfortunately, for me at least, the album goes downhill from there. Not because it fails in its mission; far from it. I have a love-hate relationship with this kind of pop; the same influences that propel Benson forward are also responsible for Spoon, but Spoon had the sense to listen to some Pixies records once in a while, which keeps things, erm, grimy. It's too Pure, this pop is, which isn't really the problem; Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army" is a Pop record, no bones about it, but Costello included weird harmonies, and wasn't afraid to use "nigger" in a sentence. Benson would probably shrivel into a ball, which is to say his lyrics don't make up for the sugar. This is a problem I will undoubtedly be alone in having, as is often the case. A very good Pop record, then, but not something I'll listen to much. Well, "A Whole Lot Better" may prove an exception...

The Boy Who Knew Too Much

Let's be clear, "Grace Kelly," Mika's debut single from, what, 2007?, is brilliant. If you're its audience, it fills you with energy, enthusiasm, glee, vim and vigor, and if you're not its audience, it must just annoy the piss out of you. These are the things Great Pop is supposed to. Well, Great Pop which is aware of its existence as Great Pop is supposed to, anyway. This is why Coldplay are brilliant at what they do; Mika, Coldplay, U2, and Queen are all of a similar vein. Keep in mind, Mika is definitively the least deserving of that company, I'm not putting these people in tiers. I'm simply referring to the particular race they run; music written for the masses, not for the writer. There's nothing wrong with this, in principle. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is God coming through your speakers.

I bring up Queen because Mika and Freddy Mercury were cut from the same overtly melodramatic clothe, and Mika doesn't hide it. This is mostly because he finds the thought comforting, and a sort of Manifest Destiny. At any rate, his songs are Pop to the point where even I cringe. Listening to Mika is a lot like listening to an entire ELO album; when you're done, your brain kinda hurts, even though you're pretty sure you had a good time, and you think you want to do it again, but you don't know why. Each Mika album contains one ringer, though, and if his first had "Grace Kelly," The Boy Who Knew Too Much has "Rain," which is just Euro-Disco Pop, but better. It's all minor-tones, with whirling synths and a pulsing back beat which will get your feet moving whether you want it to or not.

Much like Mr. Benson, the album is immaculate in its construction, and every track is a technical ringer. Whereas Benson aims for guitar hooks which could land a whale, Mika uses everything, and there isn't an aspect of his songs which couldn't qualify as a hook; it depends on how you feel about hooks. I, for one, am cynical that way. Pure Pop is the hardest to pull off; you have to make it tricky while allowing everyone to think they could do it themselves. Both boys succeed wildly at that.

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