Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hard Promises

A month ago, I started listening to Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque on endless rotation. I had heard the album before, but this time I was listening to it from a specific angle; I was considering why the album is often named as a forebear of the so-called power pop revival, and, more generally, how to define power pop. Conversations with friends and loved ones had often lead to arguments about the basic merit of the genre, but now I was instigating again, this time just trying to figure out what the hell the label meant. For me, basic knowledge included identifying Big Star as early purveyors of the revival and the New Pornographers as current exemplars. I love these bands. A few internet searches also led me to Guided by Voices (makes sense), the All-American Rejects (huh?), and the Jonas Brothers (what the fuck).

The subject came up again upon the release of Elvis Costello's latest studio album, National Ransom, and a concurrent profile of Costello published this week in the New Yorker. I read once again about how Costello was first classified in that late-70s punk/new-wave circle. I've always considered him a pop artist. I think he says the same, though the lines have blurred for him in the past, I don't know, 20 years. This new Costello action prompted a revived debate between me and my girlfriend, Emma, about whether he is part of the power pop world and, if so, why. Emma rather astutely commented that the power pop bands she dislikes tend to feature style over substance. And while I don't agree with that definition for Costello (his lyrics brim with substance), I can see her point for various other acts. Joe Jackson, for example. I love Look Sharp! and I'm The Man but his music's main asset is its punchiness, not its depth.

The thing is, I really like punchiness. I like it in music more than I like it in most other things, actually. My thought about all these artists is that they are bound by an emphasis on melody, tight song construction, and an inclination to rock with a great deal of gusto. So, yea, style more than substance. Some of them (Fanclub, GBV, some Big Star) can sound rough and jarring, and I like that. Others have a more manicured sound. But part of the definition now for me is that these artists' songs only contain essential parts. Their verses, choruses, bridges, musical breaks, solos, usually come in short spurts and when these things repeat, they don't repeat needlessly, just enough for effect. This is why some of that late-70s punk sound can fit in with the definition, as well as your typical rock bands over the past few decades. Jackson, Cheap Trick, the Cars, the Replacements--they all have their place. tells me that Tom Petty's fourth album Hard Promises owes a lot to the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, but, in light of the thoughts above, I've been hearing it from a power pop perspective. I've read that when the Heartbreakers first came on the scene in the late 70s, some thought of them in the same vein as the Clash and Costello, loud and jittery but with a well defined influence from American and British popular music. It makes sense when you hear this nice album of tightly written and performed songs. When I listen to "A Thing About You", not the best but certainly the most up-tempo and satisfying song on the album, it makes me think about something I said about a year ago to a friend and how it still holds true: if I could be in any kind of band, I would want it to be a power pop band.