Heartbreak Kids

That's not despair in the air, it's Pollen

It's 6 a.m. and there's no one in the building. The morning begins just as the night has ended, in a dark cloud of self-doubt and heartbreak. Reeking of stale smoke and even staler beer, I wind through a dim labyrinth of hallways and cubicles. Still reeling from the night's rejection, I reach the door to my office, where I hope to find familiar comfort inside. I look for ways to quell the distress. I search for answers in the places I've always looked -- in books, in magazines, but mostly in records.

I find what I'm seeking in a corrugated mailer, postmarked Tempe. Inside, in a black-and-white cover, is Chip, the new album from local band Pollen.

Ignoring logic and sequencing, I put the disc in my stereo and press random play, winding up on the album's 10th track, "Chanceless." Whether by fate or sheer coincidence, the barrage of opening chords somehow captures my funk perfectly, as do the litany of questions and recriminations that follow in a coarse tenor.

"What was it about him that made you allow him to be a part of your life?"

"Am I that worthless at a glance?"

"You'll never know me and you sure won't ever love me."

"I hope he knows what he's got, because I know I'll never get the chance."

I usually leave the embarrassing confessionals to my colleague, Bill Blake, but I won't shy away from recounting this particular tale, because it's less about me than about how "pop" music (in this case, local "pop" music) can illuminate and aid us in our moments of greatest need.

I will save the story of the making of Chip -- one that saw Pollen switch labels, record in three studios and completely remix the project twice -- for another time. As interesting as the details of that particular saga are, they are mere semantics when compared to the triumph of the resulting product.

The songs on Chipmight not sound all that different from the mainstream fodder that is frequently scorned on these very pages. Yet in comparing Pollen and, say, Blink-182, it should be noted that superficially there are few differences between early Beatles and Herman's Hermits. Yet we understand that there is a titanic gulf between the two, no matter what sonic similarities exist on the surface.

I cite Blink only to emphasize the fact that Chip is a modern album in every sense of the word. This isn't the muse of crusty old punks or rock nostalgists but the genuine yearnings and laments of musical nascents. Pollen's influences date only as far back as Rocket From the Crypt, Dinosaur Jr. or, at most, the Descendents. Yet the spirit and tradition inherent in their music -- the fusion of sound and emotion, of word and passion -- reflects a longing as old as the opposable thumb.

Like the members of Pollen, I, too, am in my mid-20s, an age where the awkwardness and pain of adolescence are distant enough to allow for some perspective, yet fresh enough to recall the pitiless sting. Alas, it's also the phase where concerns about upward mobility -- job, finance, future -- obscure the purer pursuits of youth. Fortunately, I've managed to stave off that destiny by residing in a universe populated by bands, bars and records -- an existence that clings to a wistful, though ultimately impractical, ideal.

As Dave Marsh noted in his biography of Bruce Springsteen, rock 'n' roll, like baseball, is a kid's game best played by adults. Perhaps that's why Pollen's new record made such an impression, because the album springs from an emotional purgatory, a place somewhere between boyhood and manhood; it mines a rich seam of postadolescent melancholia.

The members of Pollen are estimable talents. Drummer and lyricist Bob Hoag is one of the few genuinely exciting trapsmen around. Guitarists Mike Bennett and Kevin Scanlon work a torrid two-guitar attack, while bassist Chris Serafini is a granitelike presence in the middle. Vocalist Dan Hargest makes the biggest leap on the new album. Forsaking any semblance of balance, his parts are an all-out emotional exorcism that pushes his sandpaper voice to its limits, with engaging results.

While the band is squarely rooted in a traditional power-pop dynamic, Hoag's lyrics display a trenchant and often bizarre wit that hearkens to the strange cinematic vision of David Lynch as much as the musical muse of John Reis. Hoag's singular skill as a writer comes through even when he tries to be willfully idiosyncratic, as on the morbid "Wing Walkers," or the title track, a white-boys-as-legends-in-their-own-minds anthem.

But mostly he saves his pen for the ladies. From the wistful "You Know Macumba?" to the punkish "Caramel," Hoag serves up a series of choice lyrical bons mots that cast him as a wounded and quizzical smart ass: "Someday someone will follow in the footsteps you have hollowed/But it won't be her"; "Hanging on every word you're saying/Waiting for a look to tell me how well my time is spent."

Though brokenhearted, Hoag's words never come off as snide or accusatory. He regularly asks and answers his own questions. From "Everything's Wrong": "If you're wondering why I look so down, it's 'cause it's Tuesday/And your eyes that I'm looking at aren't the eyes I looked in Monday."

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