War Against Silence | 1997

After a cold, petulant 1996, 1997 finds Veruca Salt transforming themselves into stadium-pop colossi, Robert Pollard making an unapologetic rock record, Mark Eitzel relaxing. It's the year, at least reckoned by US release dates, that Sloan converted to pure pop. Perhaps this is the year that low-fi grows up.

Papas Fritas are every bit as unlikely candidates to participate in this migration as the other four. Their breath-takingly naive debut, released in 1995 (on Minty Fresh, also Veruca Salt's label), was very nearly as artless as it's possible to be while still making art. I shelved it between Guided by Voices and the Magnetic Fields, not so much on strict aural similarities (Pollard and Merritt hardly resemble each other stylistically), as on the grounds that I know of few bands as willing as those three to make their music with whatever means come to hand. It was a pop record, if you had to classify it, but its pervasive minimalist informality, by comparison with which Jonathan Richman sounds a little like GTR, rendered the question of genre largely moot. It was far too self-possessed, I thought, to belong to a category, in any meaningful sense. As with Sloan, though, I vacillated between being charmed and irritated by this. Like Twice Removed, Papas Fritas was an album that, about half the times I played it, just failed to thread into my mind properly, right at the beginning, and if I wasn't in the mood by the end of fifteen seconds, I wouldn't get into it in the next half hour, either. But later I'd find myself humming some fragment of it, and put it on again, and it would seem marvelous. Helioself, if the Sloan parallelism were to hold, would have to alienate me firmly, at first, only to win me over months later when some logistical occurrence prompted me to reevaluate it.

Maybe I do occasionally learn from my mistakes, though, because Helioself's version of the resistance/acceptance progression was drastically abbreviated: the first time I played it, I wasn't sure what I thought; by the second time, I had a theory. The theory, which has held up admirably under extended scrutiny, and I mean in complete seriousness, is that this album, like One Chord to Another, is a modern pop masterpiece. Getting two of these in one year is pretty unlikely, so maybe I'm just happy about my house; it's hard to see how the reverse could be true, and this album could be responsible for my finding the place, though it's never wise to underestimate causality. If Sloan's triumph is in restating elemental early-Beatles pop songcraft as a dialect of indie guitar-rock, then Papas Fritas' is in reconciling their uncluttered performance aesthetic with pop's more maximal ancestors, from Ben Folds and the Posies to later Beach Boys experimentation, to Broadway musicals to Sesame Street and The Partridge Family. The idea of Gang of Four doing Donnie and Marie songs is pretty disturbing, I admit, and probably isn't how this will sound to anybody but me. Imagine the gleeful pop spirit of Hanson, maybe, incarnated in Lou Barlow instead of the brothers. Queen or Elton John without the flamboyance? The Dambuilders doing the Mamas and Papas? Velocity Girl doing Propaganda doing Jellyfish? Evan and Juliana doing "Free to Be You and Me"? (I think the heat is getting to me.) "Helioself", with its play on "Heal yourself" and the prefix for "of the sun", is a rare bit of wordplay cleverness that is genuinely meaningful: this is a record about healing yourself by being your own source of warmth and light.

The album opens with "Hey Hey You Say", the advance single. If you can imagine an impish psychedelic remake of the Comsat Angels' "Independence Day", filling in the spaces between the oblique drum figures, ominous, atmospheric bass and buzzing synthesizers with whirring sitar peals and ragged, but exuberant, vocal harmonies, you're close to this. With its off-center AABBA verse rhyme schemes and inhalation-like chorus phrasing, this sounds to me in parts like the Human League, refracted, and in other parts like the Rentals trying to work out a Milla song. The chirpy refrain is contentless, but the bridges to it, obsessively chanting "Man on the telephone / Will never let me--" and "It's all the same, it's all the same", lend the song a sinister reserve that "MMMBop" does not possess.

"We've Got All Night" breaks out the guitars, thin, trebly and distorted, slashing through the center of the arrangement and wheeling off in miniaturized solos. The wordless backing-vocal sighs, though, the rhythm-track canter, the sotto voce choruses and the narrative's late-night love affair, yearning and loneliness both captured in, and dispelled by, the radio and the telephone, are all helplessly earnest, and empathize more with the way you look at a rock hero's poster on a bedroom wall than with the heroics the poster depicts. Although this and Veruca Salt's "With David Bowie" take somewhat different approaches to the subject, both, to me, are attempts to distill out the real emotional strengths that are why what seems like shallow adulation can still have such power.

Drummer Shivika Asthana takes over lead vocals for the near-lullaby "Say Goodbye". She sounds at least marginally more confident than she did in her parts on the first album, but she still sings cleanly, without flourish or histrionics, as if singing is something anybody can do, and so not inherently remarkable. The song, a steady, gentle pulse, is a bit like a cross between the Blue Nile and Squeeze, torn between ethereality and infectiousness. "Small Rooms", on the other hand, sounds more like the Judys, blasts of guitar and skittering "La la la la" harmonies roaring over the sprinting bass and hi-hat. The song's sentiment (they like small rooms) is the opposite of mine, but we live with so much irony, already, that making something into an anthem for its inverse in our heads is almost second-nature. I do a similar transformation with "Live by the Water", the album's most Sebadoh-like interlude, which is really a meditation on the psychological cost of living in a city, but which can be taken as an argument simply for assuming control of your life, not letting it drift in familiar patterns.

"Rolling in the Sand", with its sunny expositional vocal clarity, opens like it's going to be a children's fable, but the background vocals keep threatening to turn into "A Hazy Shade of Winter", the lyrics end up being about jealousy, violence and disingenuous non-involvement, and the song jerks to a stop before drawing any moral conclusions, instructive or otherwise. "Words to Sing", with its boy-girl vocal dialog (an underutilized device, in my opinion), sounds like "Don't You Want Me" barely able to resist slipping into "Puff the Magic Dragon". But for "Sing About Me", the conclusion of the music-about-music trilogy, the band abruptly decides to channel the spirits of Josie Cotton, "World Shut Your Mouth" and the lost era of Girl Groups, and with Asthana doing a surprisingly good job of singing like a siren, not a spectre, they careen through the pastiche like a hyperactive coed Go-Go's.

This frantic segue leads to the album's quietest stretch, "Just to See You", which I didn't think much of as "Hey Hey You Say"'s b-side, and don't take as much more than an intermission here, either. It leads, though, to the sprawling story-song "Captain of the City", which at less than four minutes can't really qualify as a rock-opera, but whose linearity of musical and lyrical development make it feel much longer than its actual duration. I think much of the childlike quality of this music, for me, derives from how natural it feels to bob my head to the left on the first beat and to the right on the third, smiling brightly, like I'm about to link arms with Dorothy and skip off down the road toward Oz. This tale of ill-considered juvenile delinquency and betrayal hardly fits with the head-bobbing and mindless grinning the music instills, but that contrast is part of the charm of the song. The album starts to edge into its finale with "Weight", the record's one low-fi holdover, a reedy piano, some clattering tap-dancing and an unsteady vocal, all of which sound like they're coming over a telephone. The conclusion, though, "Starting to Be It", returns to focus, with languid piano and recombining vocal exchanges spinning past each other in careful, if understated, choreography.

The album's brilliance, I think, lies in its accomplishment of two amazing things. First, it manages to take the brightly-colored directness of children's music and musicals, and recast it in idioms that preserve the forms' immediacy and sense of wonder, but are not cloying or superficial. Very few current bands risk coming anywhere near this corner of the style, and it seems backwards to brandish something overtly adolescent as a symbol of adulthood, but if it is possible to grow out of the Muppets into the Spice Girls, then I don't see why it shouldn't be possible to grow out of Live and Bush into Papas Fritas. Recognizing the powers of childhood can only be done from outside childhood (have you reread Pooh and Alice since you learned to drive?), so children's music for adults needn't be a contradiction. And second, Helioself is, as even One Chord to Another is not, an object lesson in how else low-fi independent pop can evolve. As other pop bands turn, prominently, to rock, regressing collectively to the mean, even if many of them are evolving, individually, somebody, for the health of the genre, needs to preserve the extent of the genre's scope. Papas Fritas are caretakers of another flame that pop, once (now that?) the Lollapalooza era is over, will need again. We've been, stylistically, through something of a winter in popular music, which in a way began when Nevermind heralded the leaves changing color. Winters are dramatic, but also often grim, and we survive (and even enjoy) them in part because we know we will get through them, and feel summer's warmth again. Helioself is a summer album. Shorter records for longer days. I think that means there's time to play this one twice.