Power Pop Class Of 2002: Phantom Planet

phantomplanet550Phantom Planet singer/guitarist Alex Greenwald is a young man but far from an angry one. Even when defending the quintet—which includes guitarist Jacques Brautbar, bassist Sam Farrar, guitarist Darren Robinson and drummer Jason Schwartzman—against the mistaken perception that they’re just Hollywood actor kids undeserving of major-label status, the 22-year-old does so calmly.

“I haven’t had anyone come up to me and tell me I’m some sort of asshole who’s had it easy,” says Greenwald, who appeared in the 2001 cult film Donnie Darko; Schwartzman, of course, starred in Wes Anderson’s beloved Rushmore three years earlier. “If someone thinks that we’ve had it easy, let them keep thinking it. It’s not true. We’ve spent eight, almost nine, years making this band a band. Whether we’re good or not, we’ve been doing it for a long time.”

Written with what Greenwald calls “intentional optimism” during a time of atypically inclement West Coast weather, Phantom Planet’s second record, The Guest (Epic), is loaded with cheery pop songs. The best of the solid lot—the soaring “California” and the aptly titled “Anthem”—are unapologetically hopeful, and silly as it seems, even lyrically downcast tunes like “Lonely Day” positively beam.

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Power Pop Class Of 2002: Arlo

arlo350When you kick off an album with a flurry of Tommy-era Pete Townshend windmill guitar chords, it’s like opening a jar of strawberry jam at a picnic table. You’re bound to attract wasps. Arlo’s rocking new pop longplayer, Stab The Unstoppable Hero (Sub Pop), would’ve kept the record-shop staff in the film High Fidelity busy arguing over influences that run the gamut from Creedence Clearwater to the Knack, from Nilsson to Nirvana. The Los Angeles group—guitarists Nate Greely and Sean Spillane, bassist Ryan Maynes and drummer Tom Sanford (all four sing)—are fully aware they’re an attractive nuisance for record-collecting geeks. They, too, are record-collecting geeks.

“It’s a disease,” says Greely, admitting he’s “stuck on classic rock. I spend as much money on records as a junkie would on heroin.” The only way to feed his addiction, he says, was to spend thumb-numbing hours sifting through dusty cartons of vinyl at garage sales and record stores. Greely was convinced his stash of 500 albums was hot stuff until he ran into a die-hard collector recently. “We played with this older guy in Buffalo,” he says, “this pack rat whose house was cluttered with accordions and strange instruments—thousands of records and CDs everywhere. And I’m like, ‘Oh no, this is where I’m headed.’”

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Power Pop Class Of 2002: Bigger Lovers

bigger-loversh“Isn’t it every kid’s dream anymore?”

That’s how Bigger Lovers singer/bassist Scott Jefferson justifies four grown men chasing the perfect pop song like 30-year-old rookies. Huddled around a cluster of pints at a local bar, the Philadelphia quartet is fielding questions and running the perfunctory band drill of discussing locations for a new practice space. It may be a brilliant career on a smaller scale, but the Bigger Lovers—Jefferson, singer/guitarist Bret Tobias, guitarist Ed Hogarty and drummer Patrick Berkery—don’t really question their assignment.

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Power Pop Class Of 2002: Mayflies USA

mayflies360Most bands rightfully despise comparisons to other ones. But when it came time to make their third album, Walking In A Straight Line (Yep Roc), Chapel Hill’s Mayflies USA found a specific make and model to emulate: the Stones’ Exile On Main Street.

“They made it with a mobile unit and had a siege mentality about it,” says bassist/vocalist Adam Price.

“We’re sort of aiming high by saying that,” says guitarist/vocalist Matt McMichaels with a laugh. “But it sounds like they would have made the record even if no one had put it out. And it sounds like they were on top of each other at the time they recorded it. You can actually hear the proximity of people to each other.”

During the recording of Walking In A Straight Line in Chicago earlier this year, the Mayflies were able to learn something about proximity and personal space; Price, McMichaels, guitarist/vocalist Matt Long and drummer David Liesegang all lived in a single room.

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L.A. Story: As A California Youth, Franklin Bruno Dreamt Of Power-Pop Glory

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Growing up an hour east of Los Angeles, I was too young and protected to witness the city’s early-‘80s power-pop explosion at close range. But in my secondhand way, I was weaned on the scene. Most Sundays, while my mother and grandmother worried over the family’s lunch, I was in the living room poring over the club listings in the Los Angeles Times. In those days, the Times gave local music generous coverage, but the ads were even better, listing shows at now-vanished clubs like the Starwood and Madame Wong’s (a converted Chinese restaurant) and still-extant ones like the Roxy and the Whisky A Go-Go. The Whisky had the best, most mod-looking ads: alternating stripes of black-on-white and white-on-black, announcing a parade of bands—the Unknowns, Real Impossibles, Gary Myrick & The Figures—that I romanticized like mad.

Los Angeles had one other big thing going for it: KROQ. Long before becoming a template for alt-rock stations nationwide, KROQ was an independent oasis in a town dominated by dinosaur rock. Glam scenester Rodney Bingenheimer spun rare imports and drooled over girl groups on weekend nights; the rest of the week, the station made concise, exciting songs like the Kingbees’ rockabilly-tinged “The Big Rock” and Great Buildings’ soaring “And The Light Goes On” into regional hits, alongside an Anglophilic diet of Joe Jackson and the Police. Early on, of course, came “My Sharona” by the Knack (pictured), which was to Los Angeles in 1981 what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was to Seattle a decade later.

What’s noteworthy is how closely this music co-existed with other local trends. Power pop was the radio-friendly lodestar of a constellation that spanned glorified bar rock (Naughty Sweeties) and arty outsiders (Suburban Lawns), with the so-called Paisley Underground (Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, Salvation Army) just beginning to be noticed. I’m sure I’ve idealized the amount of infighting there must’ve been, but from my vantage point in Upland, it looked pretty idyllic.

This isn’t the chapter of Los Angeles rock history that people mythologize, but it’s never been forgotten here. Major players like 20/20 and the Plimsouls have mounted the odd reunion, while the Poptopia and International Pop Overthrow festivals bring together the city’s new-wave-inflected style and more ‘60s-centric variants. If Weezer didn’t learn something from these bands then I never walked down Melrose Avenue in a sharkskin sportcoat.

Paul Westerberg: The Man Who Wasn’t There

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After his wild life with the Replacements, Paul Westerberg learned to disappear. But when St. Paul returned, he found his down-and-out disciples waiting for him. By Jonathan Valania

And then one day, long after anyone bothered paying attention, he just disappeared. He simply wasn’t there anymore. There was no puff of smoke or trapdoor involved. He just slowly faded away while we were looking right at him or through him or past him. And nobody even blinked.

He went back to the house, somewhere on the sunny side of Minneapolis, to be alone with his headaches and cigars and the mother of his child, with her diet pills and her barbells, and the son who learned to crawl watching daddy’s skin. And he was happy to do nothing, padding around in the middle of the night in his slippers and his sunglasses and all his hair. And he waited until somebody noticed that he was gone, and he waited and waited. And nobody ever did.

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My Noise: Novelist George Pelecanos Stands Up For The Replacements’ Falling Down

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Rewind 16 years. I’m nearing the end of my 20s, newly married to Emily Hawk, still passionate about music, movies and books. There are bills to pay and responsibilities to own up to. As this is the ‘80s, it doesn’t take a genius to move up the ladder. If you can fill up a suit, you can get promoted. That is, if you conform and buy into the whole mousse-and-Vuarnet trip. I like to work, but I can’t conform. So there I am, the general manager of a chain of major appliance stores, working 60-some hours a week. What I want, more than anything, is to be someone else. Remember the cover of Pleased To Meet Me, with the Rolex-and-diamond-horseshoe-ring hand shaking the hand with the frayed sleeve? Mine is the arm on the right and the left.

In that job, I have to be in my office by 7 a.m. I park my Ford pickup outside the building at 6:45, my Windsor knot strangling my throbbing neck, and turn up the v of my tape deck. “Bastards Of Young” comes forward at full volume, the bass vibrating the windows of the truck. That raging, volcanic music somehow gives me the courage to face another day. At work, “Unsatisfied” is constantly running through my head; Westerberg’s howl is my own. In the evenings, Emily and I talk, party and listen to music. Nights with Green On Red, the Dream Syndicate, X, Minor Threat and the Pogues, but always it comes back to the Mats. “Little Mascara” is Emily’s favorite song. I’m into “Left Of The Dial” and “Sixteen Blue.” There are tunes like “Favorite Thing,” “Hold My Life” and “Alex Chilton” for driving, “Here Comes A Regular” for drinking, “Kiss Me On The Bus” for love. The music of the Mats sounds like chaos, but to me it sounds like peace.

OK, here’s another middle-aged guy, getting stupid. Maybe. With rock ‘n’ roll you never know if it was really that transcendent or if it just seems that way in the golden glow of the rearview. Nostalgia clouds your judgment and often makes you unwilling to enjoy the new. “The Strokes are OK, but I’ve got the New York Dolls on Mercury vinyl, and anyway, when I want to hear the Ramones I put on Rocket To Russia.” Etc. But trust me, the Replacements really were that great.

Fast-forward 16 years. I’m in Paris, ending a two-month book tour. Friday night, my final commitment done, I return to my hotel room to relax. I open the balcony doors to get a view of the street, pour a double Four Roses neat, slip Westerberg’s Stereo into my Walkman, put my feet up on the coffee table and touch fire to a Marlboro Red. It’s the most memorable moment of my trip. Listening to “We May Be The Ones,” I’m moved like it’s 1986. And then, a few days later, I’m back in the States, hugging my daughter Rosa, rubbing her back, as “No Place For You” fills the room. Thinking that this music is just as powerful, and yeah, important, as it ever was.

—George Pelecanos

Wilco: Heroes And Villains

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In the eyes of the record label there was a failure; and in the eyes of Wilco there was an album growing heavy for the vintage. How Jeff Tweedy and Co. fought against the man and amongst themselves for the fruits of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. By Jonathan Valania

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

That was written by William Carlos Williams, an American poet. Best I can tell, he was talking about the significance of insignificance, that little things truly do mean a lot—like if you could surf the past in a time machine and you did something as small as, say, kicking a stone in the Stone Age, it could send a ripple through the entire fabric of history. Everything after could be slightly different. You might even erase yourself from existence.

I bring this up because this is a story about American poets, who will be referred to hereafter as the rock band Wilco. And this is a story filled with insignificance: business deals, personnel changes, communication breakdowns, creative dysfunction and small personal failures. Basically, a lot of red wheelbarrows in the rain that so much depends upon. Not the least of which is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I’m pretty sure will be remembered one day as great American poetry in thought and word and sound and action. If 1999’s Summerteeth was Wilco’s Pet Sounds, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is its Smile—American beauty edged in transcendental weirdness and giddy invention. YHF is the smoking gun in the case for Wilco being the new Great American Band—a torch-passing tradition that stretches from prime R.E.M. to the Band to Bob Dylan, who got it from Woody Guthrie, who picked it up from Carl Sandburg, who had it passed to him by Walt Whitman.

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Bob Mould: Fight/Club

bobmould204550After a mini-career writing pro-wrestling scripts, Bob Mould returns for the fight of his life—not with the pop/punk he pioneered in Hüsker Dü and sugar, but rather two electronic albums straight out of synth city. By Scott Wilson

Bob Mould likes Daft Punk, but is he one? It was crazy enough for the most tinnitus-inducing guitar player since Pete Townshend to publicly renounce amplified rock in 1998. Then, in an urban myth that turns out to be true, Mould spent a chunk of his self-imposed hiatus as a scriptwriter for professional wrestling. But it was only when word spread about the 41-year-old former Hüsker Dü/Sugar slash-and-burn pioneer’s come-to-Jesus with Pro Tools and the Bobtronica results that it seemed safe to say it: Bob Mould is fucking insane.

The rest of the evidence is equally compelling. Even without the Mouldonna vocodered verses and car-alarm samples that dot Modulate’s lead-off track, even without the follow-up tour that put a solo Mould in front of prerecorded electronic tracks and his filmed images projected on a 15-foot-tall screen—even without the Russian roulette of issuing three albums in 2002 on his own label with his own money—Mould is certifiable because he’s done all this when he knows you won’t like it. And all he has to say for himself is that “it takes three listens” to understand Modulate.

Actually, Mould has considerably more to say. About his music, pro wrestling, masculinity and risk. Because the least sane among us are the most magnetic, Mould makes his points and tells his stories with convincing ardor, gentle humor and self-effacing candor. Because most people, especially musicians, are even nuttier than Bob Mould, what he says makes a lot of sense. And he’s right: Modulate begins to sound downright sane the longer you listen to it.

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