It's been a while since a band gave me that Ben Folds Five feeling. You know the one: Lyrics clever and snarky enough to offset candy-coated melodies, choruses that require you to shout them from open car windows, big power pop moments when the skies open up and remind you that adolescence wasn't 100 percent horrible.
Say hello to Fountains of Wayne, whose "Stacy's Mom" surely would be the theme to a critical moment in American Wedding if that movie were made in a better world. (Okay - a better world might have better movies to make. But "Stacy's mom / has got it goin' on / she's all I want / and I've waited for so long" is the ideal anthem for the franchise that gave us the acronym MILF.)
That track and at least a half dozen other guitar-slinging sing-alongs make Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve Records) an indispensable summer album. Come to think of it, with the perfectly balanced way it mixes tales of teenagerdom with slices of just-stepping-into-the-real-world life, the disc is a pretty good replacement for that so-so post-graduation sequel, never mind soundtrack. It would be a killer 10-track pure-pop album, but songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood go down all sorts of entertaining side roads: a credible lonesome country song, a melancholy-sounding but sarcastic symphono-ballad, and a few lower-key, more convincingly personal compositions. Here's hoping it doesn't take the boys another four years to deliver a follow-up.
On the subject of power pop, this summer has brought us a new Big Star album...sort of. 30 years after the fact, Lucky Seven and Rounder Records have finally released Rock City, a self-titled record by the band that immediately preceded Big Star. Featuring Star-men Christopher Bell and Jody Stephens, the group was clearly already on the path to the perfect three-and-a-half minute catchy rock song; a couple of these tracks were re-recorded quite faithfully once Alex Chilton came along. Some tracks are better than others - faux-grand tunes like "The Preacher" are like sore thumbs - but the disc will be a must-have bit of history for Big Star cultists, of which there are thousands.
Before we leave pep and pop and all things perky, Polyphonic Spree fans who haven't yet picked up their debut, The Beginning Stages of (Hollywood), might want to do so now, while you can get it packaged with a four-song bonus disc including live and alternate versions of such songs as "It's the Sun." (And no, tracks three and four weren't remixed by the Chris Bell who was in Big Star; sadly, that Chris is still dead.)
Perhaps summer-oppressed pop fans could do with something slightly less bouncy. The title track on The Clientele's The Violet Hour (Merge) is just the thing. Mid-tempo without plodding, its refrain features wispy, multi-tracked vocals and unobtrusively pretty harmonies that are happy to serenade you without demanding interaction. From there the album moves to thorax-cushioning bass lines, eternally resonating guitar tones, and an overall sound that's often a little like Lloyd Cole fronting Galaxie 500.
Readers who swoon at the mention of Galaxie 500 would probably also like to hear about a new disc from the Cocteau Twins. But there isn't one. The Twins may be gone for good, but their founder/guitarist Robin Guthrie has a new album, Imperial, out on Bella Union, the label he owns with former Twin Simon Raymonde. Rather than hiring some female vocalist to replace Elizabeth Fraser's ethereal and usually incomprehensible vocals, Guthrie went the solo route, and the result is exactly what you'd expect: gauzy layers of echo effects, shimmering guitars, undulating mood music that's only now and then punctuated with anything that might be jarring. If Guthrie ever needs some cash, he could quickly become a soundtrack king - and while I'd prefer to see him start a new band instead, that isn't meant as a putdown.
(Speaking of soundtracks: Since seeing Morvern Callar a few months ago in Austin, I've been waiting to plug the excellent choices the movie made for accompanying songs. It now looks unlikely that Callar will ever open SA, but the disc - out on Warp Records and featuring a surprisingly coherent and always enjoyable mix of Can and Ween, Stereolab and Lee Hazlewood - is readily available.)
Finally, drone-poppers American Analog Set are back with Promise of Love on Tiger Style. Though it's impossible to speak for the group's fans, there are continuing hints here that the bandmates themselves have a sense of humor: How else could they start a song with three minutes of a looped organ tone and call it "Continuous Hit Music"? After that opening, though, the group gets back on more human territory; "Come Home Baby Julie, Come Home" might be the most heartfelt thing they've recorded, "Hard to Find" has the same organic groove that made Know By Heart so addictive, and "The Hatist" is almost - but just almost - funky. It's a long, long way from the effervescence of Fountains of Wayne, but as usual AmAnSet is cool enough to counteract the most brutal August heat. •