So Nick’s response to my claim that Brian Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets (see Round 88) was pretty ‘out there’, asserting that it was ‘just pop music’ really got me thinking as to what ‘pop music’ actually is, what distinguishes it from other genres and whether it has come to mean something significantly different to its more literal origins. Pop music as ‘popular’ music never made much sense to me. After all, wasn’t Mozart pretty darn popular in his day (and still is)? As is/was Metallica, Miles Davis and Robert Johnson? So, record sales alone doesn’t cut the mustard as far as definitions go. Nick suggested that pop music is anything with a riff, a repeated motif. Well, Mozart maybe not so much but the other three examples fit neatly inside that definition (as does William Basinski!) but I wouldn’t consider any of them to be pop music. So, I’m none the wiser really…The closest I can come to reaching a conclusion is typically vague – something to do with the way pop music makes me feel; it has to have signposts or signifiers that are recognisible and is, therefore, comforting and embracing. And it has to make me feel good. And whilst Here Come The Warm Jets certainly does the latter it does it in a different way; that good feeling is more one of excitement in its unpredictability as opposed to security in its well worn patterns and structures; something the songs on Eno’s debut solo album tend to lack.
I went back to my record collection immediately afterwards and started looking for the ‘pop’ albums on my shelves. And, sure, I have Beatles and Stones, Elvis Costello and Metronomy records but I also own Shake The Sheets by Ted Leo + The Pharmacists and that, to me, distills the essence of what I’m talking about into its purest form, possibly more effectively than any other album I own. Every song on Shake the Sheets is a pop gem as far as I’m concerned, there’s practically no experimentation with form or structure (as opposed to say, Happiness Is A Warm, Revolution #9), no genre exercises (Dead Flowers, New Amsterdam), no attempts at pastiche (Love Letters, Goodnight, Michelle) just eleven cuts of finest pop punk meat, in some ways purer in what it is setting out to do in the name of pop (as defined by…me!) than any of the aforementioned acts managed on any of their albums…although Costello comes close on This Year’s Model.
The strangest aspect of Shake The Sheets as far as I’m concerned is how much I like it given how close it sounds to a myriad horrible guitar based indie bands that you can hear pretty much every day on Steve Lamacq’s show on 6music. Maybe its a case of emperor’s new clothes, maybe I want to like Ted Leo (because I read that it was OK to like him) and therefore I do…but I prefer to think there’s something else, something more tangible about they way he writes and performs his music. Perhaps it’s the conviction with which he and the band perform, perhaps it’s the punchiness of the rhythm section, perhaps the melodies are just better. I don’t know the answer, but I find the question an intriguing one, one that I would love to put to him to see if he is consciously aware of what he is doing to stand apart from the Lamacq pop/punk/indie crowd (assuming, of course, that I haven’t completely misread the situation).
Lyrically, however, Shake the Sheets is a million miles away from your standard boy meets girl pop fodder. Opener Me and Mia is just about the catchiest song about eating disorders ever written, Heart Problems starts with the lyric ‘You got a problem with your heart, follow the line down your left arm’ before going on to list an alphabet’s worth of prescription drugs. The song Shake The Sheets itself contains my favourite lyric on the album, one that seems remarkably prescient as the US presidential election looms large:
‘I want to take it to the president
Him and all his cabinet with a broom
I want to sweep the Halls of Arrogance
Sweep the walls of the excrement of these baboons’
(Notice that in his vision of the future, Leo isn’t expecting there to be a female president. God help us!)
So the lyrics are a bit of a curve ball and yet, despite this, I can’t help but think of this album as one of the poppiest I own. Way more so than the indie rock of The Tyranny of Distance or the grunge punk of Hearts of Oak, Shake the Sheets has a thrilling pace to it that never relents, technicolour melodies to match the album sleeve and a verse chorus verse structure (with just enough in the way of subtle variations to surprise you even after the 50th listen) to get even the most dismissive thirteen year old daughter humming along. That, for me, is the very essence of pop music!
Rob listened: I should be beyond this sort of stuff by now. And, y’know, it’s possible to argue that Ted Leo and his Pharmacists are a watered down Husker Du or a knock off Replacements (I could speak more accurately to this imagined accusation if I knew anything much about the Replacements).
But there’s a counter-argument that looks down on Ted Leo from a great height and observes that he is surrounded on all sides by a history of rock and pop music in the shapes of XTC, The Beatles (you know, when they were a good straight down the line giddy speed pop band), Squeeze, The Hold Steady, Buzzcocks, The Cars, They Might Be Giants, Dead Kennedys, Rocket From The Crypt, Lemonheads (you know, when they were a straight down the line giddy punk band), Silver Sun and a couple of dozen other bands that I’m totally in the tank for. And if Ted Leo and the Pharmacists can be safely placed in the midst of a crowd like that, then I’d be a fool to deny them.
I’m still unsure why I’ve found this record so simply pleasurable to listen to over the last few weeks when there have been a glut of bands taking a similar approach to so-called pop punk over the last few years most of whom I wouldn’t micturate upon if they were combusting. Perhaps it’s something to do with the… maybe the… oh sod it.
The chorus to the title song has something in the quality of the voice (that still reminds me of someone I can’t quite remember) which is part singer, part buzzing death machine, and this alone is enough to make me want to listen to the whole album a hundred times.