At one time, I might have described myself as a fan of power-pop generally. (I’ve always hated the name, though – which sounds defensive: “well, yeah, we’re ‘pop’…but lookit, we’re also ‘power’! We’re not wimps – really!”) But over the years, I’ve sort of lost interest in most of the genre’s practitioners, as their musical range seems to have constricted to the most obvious songs on 1.5 Beatle albums (it’s ironic that a genre often employing the adjective “Beatle-esque” has evolved stylistic dictates so narrow, given how open the Beatles were to about any sort of musical sound or format). And the lyrics…well, too many of them think acting like a bewildered, nervous, and sometimes snotty high-school boy is somehow appealing.
The best of the genre, though, remembers that few to none of those Beatle songs (even on that 1.5 albums) had anything to do with the traumatic days of high school, and that, you know, it’s okay to broaden the musical range a bit, remembering that the real keys to the genre are melody, clever chord sequences, and (often) vocal harmonies. Given that, you can shift into 7/4 for a few bars and sing about poststructuralism – just make it catchy.
So a month or so ago, when a PR e-mail alerted me to a few tracks from the band Ghosty, I was pleased to find a band that definitely knows from catchy but isn’t stuck in a lyrical or harmonic rut. The band has put up early versions of a handful of tracks from a forthcoming EP, provisionally entitled
The Singing Fish No Nothing. The opening track “You Are a Big Screen” is the one that impressed me most: it’s one of those songs that seems to run through several different sections in only three or four minutes, with keyboards and backing vocals providing a shifting tonal backdrop, even though repeated listens reveal that its structure is less complex than it at first seems.
“Big Surrender” from Ghosty’s last album Grow Up or Sleep In has a great laughing chorus, along with a melody line that leaps fitfully from note to note, all tied together with a rather Harrison-esque slide guitar solo (whose tone, though, is slightly more biting and less rounded than George usually preferred). I also like the opening guitar figure, which adds character to what would otherwise be a pedestrian chord sequence by incorporating notes that create a somewhat unexpected chordal color. “Go to Add/Drop City” from the same CD manages the neat trick of being mostly in 3/4 time but (except for the middle section) rarely sounding like it: it somehow feels like it wants to wobble over into 4/4 (which it does for a handful of bars), and somehow its ungainliness is endearing rather than awkward.
For me, power-pop works only when it foregrounds the productive tension between familiarity and comfort against surprise and suspense. Done right, the latter qualities never seem forced or inappropriate but instead seem, after the fact, like something you’d never have thought of but which still feels exactly right. That productive tension is, to me, the power that allows such songs to transcend the wrong kind of pop, the kind that merely panders to listeners by giving them exactly what they want, challenge-free.