The Beat (WJW, Fox 8 TV, Cleveland) | 2000

Pop From the Edge

Q: "Pop" is a very slippery word -- one not often defined -- isn't it?

"Pop" is one of the most-used and least-understood words in the musical vocabulary. You can't even say "popular music" without "pop" popping up. In the broadest sense, "pop" is simply an abbreviation for "popular" and means non-classical, or non-serious music -- it has an elitist implication in that the masses are assumed to be incapable of appreciating "serious" music, and would rather be "simply" entertained, as if this were something bad.

A narrower sense of the word distinguishes again between art and non-art music, but in this case includes elements of rock, jazz, country, folk, blues, soul and other "authentic" music styles that have arisen spontaneously as a means of artistic self-expression outside of a purely commercial context. "Pop" in this sense implies "inauthentic."

"Pop" in the most modern sense takes the disparaging connotations of the past regarding "non-serious" or "inauthentic" music and turns them on their heads: "pop" in this sense is used to mean music created specifically to bring pleasure using pure, tuneful melodies and rhythms grounded in the 60s, the golden era of modern pop with the Beatles, Beach Boys, Burt Bacharach, Motown, girl groups, bossa nova, and even the Tijuana Brass ravishing their audiences with bouncy, bubbly music pleasure. Rather than being a lesser achievement, these artists view unadulterated musical pleasure as the highest goal -- they defiantly view their music as light but not lightweight, bubbly but not empty, pop with an edge.

Q: Papas Fritas and Yo la Tengo? Are we talking about Spanish pop here?

Papas Fritas' Buildings and Grounds and Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out are not only great modern pop albums, but are simply two of the best albums of the year, period. And no, they're not Spanish. Papas Fritas' name reveals something of its cleverness: "papas fritas" literally means "fried potatoes" in Spanish, but more importantly is wordplay on their motto, "Pop had freed us." Spanish in name only, Papas Fritas is a trio from New England: singer/guitarist Tony Goddess and singer/drummer Shivika Asthana played in marching band together in high school in Wilmington, Delaware, and met singer/bassist Keith Gendel in '92 at college at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass.

Buildings and Grounds is the group's third album, their first was released in '95, the second in '97. Goddess and Asthana trade songwriting and singing duties throughout the CD; on "I Believe In Fate" they trade lead vocal lines in a microcosm of the album itself, a loose dialogue between an intense but soft-voiced male pursuer who believes in the role of fate in relationships, and an ambivalent, sincere, equally soft-voiced female pursuee: a Chet Baker and Christine Longet for a new millennium. Though Goddess and Asthana dominate the album of 60s and early-70s-derived pop, Gendel contributes the brilliant, bouncy, philosophical "Vertical Lives."

There are so many great lines, here's a taste: "People say she's angry, They don't understand, Everything just fell apart, And crumbled in her hands," and "People say she's broken, But they look away, They don't know she's workin', Harder every day," sung without a hint of irony by Asthana over a bright beat in "People Say"; "I can tell by the way you walk you wanna be alone with him," whispered by Goddess in "Way You Walk," and answered by Asthana, "Why do you make up all these stories, Made up your mind, decided for me," with mild annoyance over a light early-70s funk beat. Goddess, perhaps paranoid, retorts with quiet menace, "He was in my dreams, What else could it mean?" Yo La Tengo -- And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out -- "Madeline" Yo La Tengo is one of the most famous and popular "indie" bands in existence, routinely selling out clubs from coast to coast; they are also another Eastern U.S. trio of two men and one woman with a pseudo-Spanish name and a great recent album of neo-60s pop. While Papas Fritas works in a quiet but bright pop mode, Hoboken New Jersey's Yo La Tengo (literally "I have got it" in Spanish, what outfielders call when a fly comes their way) veers between dream-like songs riding on extended organ drones, and Sonic Youth-like frenzied guitar noise (only one song on And Nothing..., "Cherry Chapstick"), a strange by effective blending since 1984. And Then Nothing... creates a mood of intense quiet -- a seeming oxymoron, I know -- but singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan, his wife singer/drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew invest the quiet with deep but just out of reach meaning, with answers just around the corner to questions that are only implied. Yo La Tengo's 60s is darker than Papas Fritas,' invoking the Velvet Underground duality of crystalline beauty and dark menace -- a menace sometimes vicious and obvious, sometimes rumbling beneath the surface as they explore the strangeness of relationships -- relationships where the euphoria of love is always shadowed by the terror of the threatened loss of that euphoria. Another album to lose yourself in over and over.