Proto Retro (TBM)
Future Me Hates Me (Dew Process)
It’s been noted here before that guitar pop – bands with strings on wood that might jangle rather than lacerate, doing melodies and harmonies, without needing to sound like they’re auditioning for a heartland beer night – is not a hero of the charts. Especially in Australia, even though we have had, and still possess, some mighty fine exponents of it.
Yeah, yeah, you can bring up the Hoodoo Gurus and You Am I to counter that argument except that not only are they pretty much the exceptions that prove the rule – that’s two acts in the past 40 years essentially - but also their reigns were shortish, and in the case of You Am I, never really translated into significant sales here.
But those of us who have never stopped liking this branch of pop do keep looking here and elsewhere, keen to celebrate whatever victories we find. And these two albums, one from the USA and the other from New Zealand (or as we might call it, Australia’s better self) are the kinds of pleasures worth celebrating.
Six albums into a career which has worked more your punkish energy/hardcore edge of the scene, Washington D.C.’s Dot Dash have delivered a record that might shock with how easy it is to enjoy.
There is energy to burn here but no need to go helter skelter ahead of us to show it. Instead, most songs feel like they’re running alongside us, as pleased to be out and free as we are, whether in jumpers (“you know it’s a sweater,” is their rejoinder in the bursting-out-of-the-room Unfair Weather) or summer shorts in the speckled light of Run & Duck For Cover. And then Dead Letter Rays repositions them from DC to Athens, Georgia in the early ‘80s, and a time when just being out was enough to be free.
Dot Dash will even nod to early New Order (via the LA paisley underground to add the chime to the prominent bass) in Tamed A Wild Beast that starts indoors, looking at low skies, before finding pleasure in even spotty sunlight is worth stepping out for.
The sigh of backing vocals included in Gray Blue Green – a song which brings to mind Marty Wilson-Piper and Peter Koppes in tandem - makes you hesitate to declare all is good in life within the sometimes ambiguous lyrics. But in the guitar arpeggios, eventually the solo, and then the always shuffling forward drums (which, to complete the Church set, feels very early Richard Ploog), there’s a dogged hold on the positive.
Lest this sound sugar and more sugar, this isn’t some scrubbed up way to find a dozen takes on That Thing You Do. Why, in Parachute Powerline – a song which might remind older folks of the slightly draggy North Carolina pop of Let’s Active – and the spikier TV/Radio, complete with an incongruous but funny reference to Alan Vega, and a certain prominent person’s pronunciation of China, there’s a little internal battle going on about emphasis.
In World’s Last Payphone, there’s a fuzziness in the verse vocals against the clean lines of the guitar that you expect will get reversed in the chorus, and it sort of does but only enough to allow a bit more shading. And the bustling Green On Red, and to a lesser extent Fast Parade, is a reminder that playing fast and still getting a tune in has its own pleasures.
And if all that isn’t enough propulsion the album ends with the shoutier, simpler release of Sun+Moon = Disguise which offers assertiveness in place of subtlety, and a link to their own older ways for those needing a quick fix as a farewell.
Elizabeth Stoke’s band of Aucklanders trades in some of Dot Dash’s classicist embellishments for more straightforward energy (Uptown Girl is no Billy Joel, unless Billy was secretly a member of the Ramones), and some of their optimism for self-doubt and observations which don’t spare her (You Wouldn’t Like Me isn’t pretending, even if the full tilt drive seems to give the object of her lesson little chance to see if Stoke is right).
If there’s an imperative to push out the messages quickly, the songwriting isn’t thrown overboard, whether in the shimmering strength of River Run: Lvl 1 or the chunked up Not Running, both of which shift from drive to hook and back to drive just perfectly.
With a song such as the racing along preppiness of Happy Unhappy she’s probably closer to Alex Lahey’s hugely enjoyable power pop runs – think more Clouds than Liz Phair – than some ‘60s jangle reference that will mean little to her.
But I think it’s safe to make a Blondie connection on Future Me Hates Me, most particularly in Whatever, which sneaks in an almost throwaway attitude into a surf song disguised as a naïve girl group lament.
As with the elements in Dot Dash, there’s nothing wrong with that set of influences, even if distant, for The Beths. After all, this is fun. This is pop.