I first encountered The 88 last fall, as they were opening for former Kinks frontman Ray Davies. It’s an apt pairing, considering this L.A.-based quartet’s propensity for tuneful British Invasion-style pop. (Davies himself liked them so much, he invited them to continue the tour in the U.K., and used them as his studio band for three tracks of his new duets album See My Friends.)
Now, opening for a rock icon like Davies is a thankless job at best. Pop Truism #1: Nobody listens to the opening band. There you are, facing a horde of middle-aged fans hungry for a well-loved repertoire of songs written before you were born. They’ve never heard your songs; they don’t know anything about you; to be honest, they could care less. I was impressed by how The 88 won over that tough crowd with insistent musical hooks and irrepressible stage energy. The minute I got home, I downloaded several tracks of their stuff.
Instant likeability can be both a blessing and a curse. The 88’s music is so accessible, it’s a natural fit for TV series soundtracks and commercials (that’s them on the opening theme for Community), and – Pop Truism #2 — TV exposure is the kiss of death. But I have to say that months later, those downloaded tunes still sound crisp and intelligent to me, not hackneyed or worn-out.
Naturally, I looked forward to their new album. I was briefly baffled to see it was named The 88, thus contradicting Pop Truism #3: Self-titled albums are always debut albums (This is in fact their fifth studio outing). Yet the cover photo’s simple image of a tall pure glass of milk telegraphs what they’re getting at: The 88 marks a back-to-the-egg approach, trading studio wizardry for a tight, immediate, recorded-live sound (Don’t try that at home, kids, unless you’ve already got a well-honed, razor-sharp live act).
What’s even more radical about this album is its rejection of Pop Truism #4: An album must have a theme. The 88 is just eleven charming radio-ready tracks – what a throwback concept! One theme does prevail – all of those tracks follow Pop Truism #5: A pop song must be about falling in or out of love. Yet even here, The 88 defies convention, trading in indie angst for an unswervingly upbeat approach in which the guy always happily gets the girl he wants.
It’s easily labeled “power pop,” though I think that oversimplifies their sound. For one thing, lead singer Keith Slettedahl’s vocals have a distinctly post-modern quaver and yelp. For another, their lyrics are allusive and opaque, not old-fashioned baby-baby-baby stuff. (It’s one area in which they fall far short of their 60s and 70s pop models.)
Within that seemingly narrow range, however, there’s a fair bit of variety. There’s the psychedelic swirl of Adam Merrin’s organ and Slettedahl’s guitar on “Center of the Sun,” “Hold On,” and “Lost and Found”; the folky acoustic tenderness of “Takes It Away”; Todd O’Keefe’s Zeppelin-esque thrusting bass on “Won’t Catch Me,” the funky bounce of “Dead On the Water,” and the slouchy syncopation of “Diamond In the Coal.”
In the end, the only really relevant question to ask about The 88’s songs is which one sticks in your head, long after the CD has been turned off. For me, it’s the irresistibly perky “They Ought to See You Now” (see the video here) or the teasingly seductive “After Hours.”
As catchy as the 88’s tunes are – and they are incredible ear-worms – they defy the logic of Pop Truism #6: There are only so many melodies in the world. The 88’s unpredictable chord progressions and odd melodic intervals lead to fresh new melodies, song after song. Acrobatic rhythmic patterns add a further spin, layered atop Anthony Zimmitti’s unfailing kick-drum beat. These guys aren’t just recycling a mid-60s pop sound; they’re revigorating it with 21st-century wit.Powered by Sidelines