Appealing and melodious though it may be, power pop has never been quite strong enough to stand on its own legs. Since it's essentially always been an attempt to recapture the unpretentious three-minute epiphanies of pre-Sgt. Pepper '60s guitar bands, its earliest musical joy rides began with a lot of tread already worn from its tires.
Power pop only attains greatness when it reached for something beyond its retro form, an emotional gravity to prevent the sweet harmonies and jangly guitars from floating off into the ether. Many have captured the musical charms of the form, but few have provided the ballast.
The distinction is subtle but crucial. It's why Big Star still resonates, while the Raspberries are merely hummable oldies fare. It's also an explanation for why '90s bands like Teenage Fanclub and Jellyfish could never deliver the goods. Plenty of form, but no content.
With that in mind, Super Deluxe is the inevitable exception that proves the rule. This Seattle quartet has nothing particularly weighty on its collective mind. Lead singer Braden Blake's idea of a personal demon is a long-standing crush on Farrah Fawcett. So if some snob dismissed the band's sophomore album, via satellite, as inconsequential fluff, it would be tough to muster a good argument.
Yet this band's sense of sonic detail is so strong, it's almost impossible to deny the sheer musical kick that it delivers on track after track of this album. Unlike Jellyfish, Super Deluxe never shows off just to impress studio engineers. And unlike Teenage Fanclub, its notion of form isn't limited to the Big Star discography.
For example, "Alright" employs some unmistakably Queenlike harmonies, while guitarist John Kirsch closes the deal with a solo that's pure Brian May. Nor is he above a Byrdsy 12-string solo on the bouncy "What's Up With Me." Elsewhere, Super Deluxe sheds its power-pop garments and slips into some grunge flannel, even briefly modeling some Pixies loopiness along the way with "Divine."
In fact, no cool-sounding guitar rock passes beneath Super Deluxe's radar. The formula eventually may wear thin, but this band's melodic gifts and obvious love for its chosen form are enough for now.
All the press materials suggest that the tragic suicide of Material Issue leader Jim Ellison be separated from this last folio of songs. Since the band maintains the eclectic, power-pop buoyance it has displayed throughout its career, it's not hard to overlook the hopeless desperation and insane jealousy that inform every catchy chorus and throwaway line. Songs like "What If I Killed Your Boyfriend" and "970-LOVE" could almost pass for fun, flip observations on heartache when they're taken out of context.
Coupling this new collection of tunes with Material's first commercial issue, a 1987 six-song EP, only highlights how much confidence and self-esteem the singer lost in the ensuing decade. "A Very Good Thing" maintains the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel saving grace of a good pop song ("When I feel like I can't go on, I turn the radio on").
No such optimism exists in the latter material, which mostly rummages over the futility of wooing back a former soul mate while she's in the arms of someone new. From "It's a very good thing that you're gone," we arrive at "If you ever need someone to walk on, I can be your everything" ("London Girl"). That there are no dark sounds or screams here a la Nirvana or Joy Division doesn't make Ellison's pain any less palpable than all the other rock 'n' roll suicides. If the power-pop crowd needs its Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs to wallow in, this is surely it.
The Fat of the Land
It's a constant source of frustration for many critics that they can't determine the future of music. They have to sit back and let musicians do it. That's the way it's supposed to work, but it doesn't stop critics from occasionally trying to force the issue.
Consider Jon Landau's 1974 campaign to make Bruce Springsteen the standard by which all rock should be measured. Or how about this year's ludicrous hype surrounding electronica, as though it was something revolutionary and new, and not something that's been stirring in British dance clubs for a decade.
That's why it was particularly funny to hear that Prodigy's recent entry at the top of the Billboard album chart meant that America had surrendered its soul to the rave new world. Few thought to consider the massive hype which preceded the album, and almost guaranteed its big initial sales. And anyway, Sarah McLachlan's new album just entered the charts at No. 2. Does that mean that we're about to be taken over by sensitive Canadian singer-songwriters?
The biggest flaw with the Prodigy paradigm is that this group is extremely different from most of what's being marketed as electronica. Sure, the fast sampled breakbeats are there, as well as the hypnotic siren wails, percussive scratches and tinny industrial clangs that add aural dimension at odd intervals.
Ultimately, though, this music is about nihilistic aggression and not about communal bliss. Whether the anger is ironic (one can hope that "Smack My Bitch Up" contains sarcasm) or desperate ("Firestarter"), it's really about using the tools of the modern world to unleash a ton of rage. And on "Serial Thrilla," musical architect Liam Howlett uses those tools to create a groove that sounds much more like Stone Temple Pilots than any electronic group you could name.
When the whole mishmash works ("Fuel My Fire," "Mindfields," the chanted section of "Climbatize"), it's scary. When it doesn't ("Funky Shit"), it just feels like a slightly ornerier brand of the filler that drags down too many electronica recordings.
But I'm partial to Fat of the Land for at least two reasons that go beyond its musical merits. For one thing, while listening to it, you don't have to see Keith Flint's idiotic, pseudodemonic video leer. And, more important, this CD is loud and virulent enough to drown out any media hype for at least 56 minutes.