published: 19 /
In his regular monthly 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth writes about searching for the perfect pop song
The perfect pop song remains a pure and beautiful thing. Although the term ‘rock’ more accurately describes most of the music written about on this site, I like to think there is always room for ‘pop’, a term that harks back to a simpler time when my tastes were dictated solely by the search for a tune. (The same time, incidentally, when I was more likely to be placated on a sunny day by an ice cream than a cold serving of imported lager).
Those amongst us who read on the BBC website that this was to be the year of electronic pop and felt, therefore, that we’d get music precisely designed for humming along have, sadly, been cruelly let down. Little Boots evidently sees herself adding a 2009 glamour to the innocent swash of 1980s synth-pop, but her available output is thus far devoid of melody. At least it is to my ears.
Now, I’m as likely as the next middle-class ex-student to spout nonsense about a staggeringly over-complicated piece of art-rock bilge, but every once in a while, it is nice to go back to the way I listened to music as a child - hear it, like it, play it again, learn the tune, move on.
Of course, pop songs don’t last for ever. I was listening to Otis Redding the other day, and on came ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’, a never bettered moment of sublime pop craftsmanship and, I was sure, a desert island disc for all time. And then I realised, with a jolt, that I was a bit sick of it. The problem, I realised, was that my stock of truly loved pop singles - those moments of sheer brilliance that are utterly of themselves - had become too slim and I was playing them all too often.
The problem is that bands of recent times have been reluctant to make great pop songs. Hip hop artists have been content to re-use the hits of the past, while guitar bands have too often substituted big-hearted ballads for genuine melodic invention as their chosen route to the top of the charts (Coldplay‘s ‘Vida la Vida’, much as I like it, was no ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Come On Eileen’). Notwithstanding the odd exception (Gnarls Barkley’s 'Crazy' perhaps), this decade has been sadly short of truly great pop singles.
As is so often the case, I’ve been forced back to the margins, away from the charts and away from the critics, in my search for a decent tune. Somewhat surprisingly, rewards have been plentiful.
The most joyous discovery was Jellyfish. (The more observant amongst you will notice that I’ve already fled the present for the past, with this American quartet having called it quits seventeen years ago). Why haven’t I heard about them before ? Obviously influenced by Big Star, they combined almost unfathomably catchy tunes with sublime harmonies, and just enough melancholy to stop your teeth from rotting. Especially brilliant, I think, is the penultimate track on their second (and final) album 'Spilt Milk' (1993), ‘Too Much, Too Little, Too Late’.
Next up, moved by the news that Prefab Sprout are due to release a long awaited comeback album this year (one of those few occasions when I can say "long awaited" and feel entirely justified - they’ve been away since 2001), I decided to investigate their later work. The big hit was ‘Steve McQueen’, and exceptional as it is, it has always been marred in my eyes by the overbearing production and tinny drums. ‘Andromeda Heights’ (1997) corrects all these faults and then adds something new, with the sumptuous ‘Whoever You Are’ being especially hard to forget.
More obscure, perhaps (at least in England) is Yann Tiersen. I gather he’s big in France, and rightly so for his instrumental songs are effortlessly tuneful. He’s a fellow traveller to Neil Hannon (he of Divine Comedy fame), sharing his combination of classic pop and classical influences. You’ll recognise him, even if you don’t know you do yet, from the 'Amelie' and 'Goodbye Lenin' soundtracks, but his real albums are far better.
Following this, and a surprise even to me, came Travis. Whatever happened to Travis ? Without the magic hand of Nigel Godrich, having foolishly allowed him to vacate the producer’s chair, they have never been the same band. Even at the peak of their popularity, they only had a casual fan base, and were rather lucky that Noel Gallagher stopped writing memorable songs at the same time as they started to write songs that sounded a bit like his better ones. But never mind, because their best song ‘Coming Around’ (2000) - not, I believe on any of their albums and released just as a standalone single - is staggeringly catchy, like the best work of Teenage Fanclub.
My point, if I have one, is that there is plenty of good music out there, often in surprising places. Ultimately, we may be told that 2009 is to be the year of pop, but that doesn’t mean previous years weren’t - it is just critics didn’t notice. Anyone who hasn’t bought, for example, the Empire of the Sun album, here is your chance. Don’t. Plump for Jellyfish or Prefab Sprout instead.
But that doesn’t mean mainstream 2009 will be entirely barren. With their usual impeccable timing, the Pet Shop Boys have greeted the ‘Year of Electronic Pop’ with a master-class in that particular genre, in the form of their new album, ‘Yes’. I’ve been guilty of getting over excited in the past, so I won’t say for certain that it’s the best album they’ve ever made, but it just might be.
Musically, its not dissimilar to Little Boots. But it has what she lacks - tunes. Lots of them in fact, catchy pop seems as easy to the Pet Shop Boys as it seems hard to everyone else. ‘Beautiful People’, the third track, in particular seems like something I’ll be playing for years to come.
I read a review of this album which saw them as comparable to the Ramones, in that their style has never changed. I was apoplectic, (but that is probably just because I like the Pet Shop Boys and not the Ramones), for this is (as usual) a subtle reinvention and an impeccable pop album.
Finally, this column has come back to where it started, as with this album my search for the perfect pop song is for the moment complete. Next month, I can return to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen with my sweet truth truly sated.