The Academy Is Power Pops Leading Light
There are few relationships in music quite as strong as the one between power pop and its fan base.
Sure, every genre of music has devotees who absorb everything they can, but at some point, the product of most such obsessions ends up in a cardboard box and passed over the trade counter to a clerk at a store that buys used CDs.
It may have seemed like a great idea to collect all of 2Pac's posthumous output or all the singles by every New Order side project and offshoot, but usually your love for such an artist leaves you feeling empty after a few years — and you move on. But moving on isn't really the sort of thing fans of power pop do, and you have to wonder why, given that the genre spits right in the face of the ones who love it the most. For every breakthrough like The Raspberries' "Go All the Way" in 1972, Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend" in 1991, parts of the first Weezer album, or The Gin Blossoms' work with Marshall Crenshaw on "'Til I Hear It from You," there are Dwight Twilley and Velvet Crush discs clogging cut-out bins.
The idea of power pop is great — anthemic songs about girls and heartbreak — but though the everyday music fan is a fan of well-crafted pop music, power pop is generally performed by uncool dudes with bad haircuts. That sort of aesthetic works for fans who make mixtapes for (but never send them to) inaccessible women. It doesn't work terribly well if you're an artist who wants to make money by selling albums and having fans at your shows.
In the mid- to late '90s, there was a band on Reprise records called Kara's Flowers, who wore matching suits and played loud, clean-guitar songs with big hooks and great choruses. They didn't really make it anywhere other than into the hands of a few college-radio DJs. (I was one of those college-radio DJs, and I played Kara's Flowers' debut disc about a thousand times when it came out in 1997.) At some point, the band decided to rough up its image, grow sleazy beards, lose weight, write sort of funky adult-contemporary jams and actually get laid instead of having dorks like me as fans. They became Maroon 5 and probably never looked back on the matching-suit days of power pop. I can't say I blame them.
The Memphis band Big Star are probably the high-water mark of the genre's history, artistically, yet never made any money, until one of their songs was used as the theme to That 70's Show. A lavish, critically acclaimed recap of their brief history was released on Rhino last month. Then, Rhino's parent company essentially closed the reissue label down a few weeks later. Maybe the timing of the release and shutdown was coincidence, but such events prove that power pop leaves only misery in its wake. Misery that is turned into more power-pop songs. It's a vicious and depressing circle — but mostly depressing.
Though labels like Colorado's Not Lame Recordings carry on for true believers, even power pop's brief resurgence in the '90s, with acts like Fountains of Wayne, seems far in the rear-view mirror. Though there are many power-pop blogs out there, the number of hopeful upstarts decreases with each year. Arbiters of indie cool like Pitchfork seem to generally despise guys playing hooky songs on the guitar, instead preferring mainstream pop music with a dance flair or somewhat obscure European versions thereof. Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" is probably the best example of mainstream power pop released this decade, but championing an American Idol winner is a weird and disconcerting feeling. Like Ms. Clarkson's great summoning of the hook spirits, however, semi-attractive young people have taken over power pop from the loser-y clutches of paunchy dudes with sideburns. Chicago's The Academy Is . . ., despite the unnecessary ellipsis and stupid name, is probably the best power-pop band working today.
There are several issues that arise from being a fan of The Academy Is . . . as an adult. First, the band is on the label Fueled By Ramen, which features a range of power-pop acts, from the enjoyable Paramore to the half-terrible Panic! at the Disco and the fully terrible Forgive Durden and This Providence.
Second, while I'm willing to defend Fall Out Boy, whose Pete Wentz essentially gave The Academy Is . . . its big break, many of the bands you must tolerate to see the band in concert are designed for high school girls with Livejournal accounts. This week's Alternative Press tour, for which TAI is the headliner, is no exception. Though appearing atrociously old and (if you're male) somewhat creepy is a near-certainty, the upside is a short line for beer. Lead singer William Beckett is a talented frontman, and the rest of the band does a great job, so they're worth seeing live, but you might have a hard time persuading anyone over the age of 20 to go with you.
To commemorate its headlining gig on the AP tour (although one press release mentioned it's actually co-headlining the show, which is far too kind to the Mayday Parade), The Academy Is . . . is releasing Lost in Pacific Time, a five-track EP that isn't quite as charming as its last full-length, Fast Times at Barrington High (the album's name alone begs you to dismiss it as teen music, right?), but does demonstrate why fans of pop hooks should get over themselves and declare themselves fans of TAI.
Remarkably, Web sites such as Absolute Punk have dismissed the band's recent work, mistakenly saying that TAI was better in its earlier clichéd pop-punk days. Sounding like Fall Out Boy didn't suit them on the debut, and their second album was disjointed and experimental, but TAI hit their stride on their third album, which managed to draw attention from reviewers who don't regularly shop at Hot Topic.
On the new EP, like the best moments of Barrington High (and there were plenty, including "About a Girl" and "Summer Hair=Forever Young"), songs like "I'm Yours Tonight" and "New York (Saint in the City)" would have fit on the soundtrack of a John Hughes film in which an outcast sits on the hood of a car overlooking the city as Beckett sings about the deep longing for something he can never have. Even if your teen-angst days are long behind you (as mine definitely are), there's a lot to appreciate in the band's songcraft. I wouldn't dare compare The Academy Is . . . to under-appreciated legends like Alex Chilton or The Replacements, but if you're tired of living in the past glories of power pop, you'll appreciate what William Beckett and company have to offer, even if you might be the only person in the 21-and-over section at one of their shows.
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