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 Chip might 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."
The album's centerpiece, "Girls Love Robots," is, ironically enough, the least directly confessional song found on Chip. Told from the perspective of a disillusioned romantic, the narrator extols the virtues of an automatonic existence while cursing the frailties of the human design -- chiefly, the inability to repair a broken heart the way you would fix a motherboard.
"Followed the directives/All I found was obsolescence/Flesh and bone will fade like any other/Manufacturer malpractice, given hearts and ammunition/You can't promise you'll always love me."
Writing in a clipped robotic tone ("When human beings break, there's no clear process to repairment") and conjuring up a bevy of morose images, the song is less David Lynch and more John Hughes by way of Philip K. Dick.
Musically, the song is powered by a blissful union of Hoag's propulsive backbeat and Hargest's tortured wail. Scanlon and Bennett's guitars assault in waves and, just as its bridge ends, the song climaxes in a torrent of backing "ahhs" and descending chords to create an utterly herculean pop moment on a record full of them.
In an era increasingly encumbered by its own sense of postmodern irony, there is nothing sardonic or wry in the new Pollen record -- they aren't pining for romance in song and bedding porn stars in real life. The songs on this album really are about girl trouble -- though such a description tends to marginalize the album's true depth. Put another way: Chip is about the agony of heartbreak, or, as a friend once noted, the agony by which all other agony is measured.
No matter how unfashionable such intense introspection may seem, it is a vital discourse, one that's woven into the tapestry of popular entertainment. It's a concept that those espousing the merits of "classical" art have never quite understood. Yet it's why I find more pathos and meaning in a modest ditty like Big Star's "Thirteen" than the most epic Wagnerian opera.
That "pop" music or culture holds such an important place in our society is incontrovertible. You needn't look further than the way we canonize our icons on postage stamps and in museums for evidence of that. But there is a deeper force at work that may explain why something as innocuous as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" could have had such a colossal cultural impact.
Perhaps the most astute observation of the phenomenon was made by British author Dennis Potter in a 1994 BBC television interview taped shortly before his death. In explaining the role of the popular arts, he hit upon an essential truth lost on most observers.
"I wanted to write about the way popular culture was an inheritor of something else," noted a frail and cancer-stricken Potter. "You know, that cheap songs, so called, actually do have something of the Psalms of David about them. They do say the world is other than it is. They do illuminate."
It is that sense of illumination that can be found in the "cheap songs" of the Stooges and the Dolls, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector. It's why the familiar opening beat to "Be My Baby" still reverberates as loudly today as it did 35 years ago, the reason the raw, ethereal beauty of "God Only Knows" can still elicit tears, and why I can't sit still when "I Wanna Be Your Dog" comes on.
For all our "it's only rock 'n' roll" sentiment, music can impart profound truths. I know, because I spend my days and nights with people whose lives were either saved or destroyed because they heard the Ramones when they were 15, saw the Replacements on TV or stumbled into a bar one night, witnessed some local rock dionysus playing guitar and were forever changed.
That's not to say that Chip is some sort of rock 'n' roll watershed -- it's not. It's just a very good record by a very good local band. But like all great albums of its kind -- the best being Brian Wilson's Beach Boy opus Pet Sounds -- it's music composed in the hearts and minds of boys occupying the bodies of men. How else could you explain a line like the one found in the album closing "Olive-Eyed": "Every person in this world can drop dead except for you."
Though it's not a literal conceit, the lyric is a staggering evocation. It may seem the skewed dedication of a teenager, yet the line is filled with such adolescent conviction -- it's so stupid and so real -- that you have to wonder how many times the same sentiment has been exchanged between starry-eyed 16-year-olds in the back seat of a car.
Hargest's reading of the lyric conveys such overwhelming innocence, you realize they're the kind of words that could only be expressed by someone who has not yet been touched by the inevitable heartache, disappointment and cynicism that come with age.
In a day when the notion of romantic idealism seems like a relic, it makes you wonder if some element of truth can't be found in such an outrageous pledge, if somehow there isn't more in the back-seat promise of two naive lovers than all the grown-up, well-read, educated psychobabble that passes between adults.
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"I will go and leave forever on the day they find the boy that loves you half as much as I do."
It's no coincidence that the record closes on this particular note. Despite Chip's unrelenting theme, there is never any hint of disenchantment with romance; never any cause to abandon its promise. For all his tear-stained bluster, Hoag makes no threat to bury himself in an emotional bunker -- a glint of hope still burning just beneath the scarred shell.
And as the dawn turns to day, and the office fills with the sounds of the workaday week, it is in that which I find the dénouement. Emotions spared and feelings soothed, once again I've found solace buried in the grooves of a record and comfort in the arms of rock 'n' roll.
Pollen's Chip will be released on Tuesday, February 22, from Fueled by Ramen Records.