About 10 years ago there was a brief Big Star vogue in the underground pop world, a world where "pop" still signifies the kind of music made by the Beach Boys, as opposed to, say, 'N Sync. The bands, mostly forgotten now, were from England and Denmark or Sweden, and they wrote choruses that sounded like Big Star falsetto harmonies tripping down the scales, with lots of ringing chords and held notes and eighth-note la-la-la-las. In their interviews they were always talking about Big Star songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell and how great they were and how influential all three of their records had been.
This was the first time that a lot of younger fans, myself included, had heard of this defunct Memphis band called Big Star, and telling a teenage self-styled pop aficionado that a band he likes is channeling some earlier band is like telling him that he's been smoking candy cigarettes. We dutifully tracked down the genuine article.
What we realized when we got the music home and put it on was that we hadn't been listening to bands who were influenced by Big Star at all -- we'd been listening to bands who were brazenly ripping them off. It was like spending two years listening to Harry Connick Jr., then having somebody say, "Perhaps you should check out this Sinatra fellow." Present in the original were all the moves we loved -- the unapologetic hooks, the high harmonies, the chords big enough to live in -- but how was it that the melodies, though they felt perfect and inevitable once you'd gotten them implanted in your head, were impossible to predict? Pop kept dissolving into soul, or evolving into this sound that ached to be orchestral. The harmonies sounded heartbroken in a way that only gospel was supposed to sound.
Those knock-off bands were not to be faulted, really. However well-intentioned one's efforts, there is no faking Memphis. And beyond that, Big Star were a band's band, meaning they let their craft show. This makes their stuff unpalatable to a lot of people who come to it expecting the Beatles, since for all the songwriting brilliance of Chilton and Bell, you can also hear the cleverness, the musical references, the "Dudes, wouldn't it be strange if I put this note here?" It makes their influence tricky to handle, too. Think about Tom Waits, a musician's musician: Can you possibly be "influenced" by the man without imitating his thing, and doing an inferior job? Better, maybe, to find some other, humbler muse. Love Big Star if you must, but make your ambition to write like the Cars.
Such, roughly, were my thoughts before last month, when I heard a promo copy of "The Subversive Sounds of Love," the first album by a new Chicago pop quintet called Frisbie. But I don't think that way anymore. These people have somehow contrived to, in that evocative phrase, take this shit higher. They've made a record that, for all its proud and obvious borrowing from Big Star, is so tightly crafted and unusual that you could set it beside Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville" and Wilco's "Summerteeth" as evidence that Chicago has been the real, if somewhat unheralded, capital of American guitar-pop for the past 10 years. These are records that pull off, over and over, the monstrously difficult balancing act involved in making great three-minute songs, managing to be lyrically and melodically innovative and a joy to listen to at the same time.
"The Subversive Sounds of Love" is sort of a cheesy title. But it makes a perverse sense once you get to know the record. One of the subversive things about Frisbie is that, like the twee cult songwriter Jonathan Richman, they're constantly daring you to call them cheesy. Just when you open your mouth to do so, they kick your ass. "Let's Get Started," the lead track on "Subversive," works that way. It starts with a shout, in chorus, of "LET'S GO!" and a throbbing major chord. For a second you think you might be trapped in the prom scene of a late-period John Hughes movie. Then the verse comes in:
Let's get started again,
Set the clocks at the same time
Let's get started again,
Let's all walk from the same line
You're grooving now. It's a good John Hughes movie. There's this unbelievably precise harmony note that just emerges, with no sliding, on top of the words "time" and "line," so you can be sure that at least one of these guys did some time in choir. The drums aren't doing that clicka-clicka thing that any song beginning with the line "LET'S GO!" should logically do -- instead it sounds like a military shuffle. Very cool. The second guitar is chiming in time: chime ... chime ... chime . . . chime. There's an organ that sounds like somebody found it on the street. Then the voice again:
Because it's easiest to believe
When ambiguities run more like some regime. Let's get started again
Set the clocks at the same time
Did he say, "When ambiguities run more like some regime?" Suddenly this has become a dark little song. Overtopping all those big fat Bs and Es and As and the shining notes, is the voice of somebody who's finally learned to love Big Brother, and he's here to tell you that it's all going to be fine. Relax.
Or maybe that's not what he's saying. Maybe he's saying, "Come on, we all know there are no absolutes. Let's proceed as if there were, so that we can get something done."
So when we want it to,
It'll be easy and fun
We'll be the only ones
I've listened to the song three dozen times and am still not sure which paraphrase to go with. But you don't have to decide, because the whole time you're feeling it, you're drumming with pencils, you're directing the video in your head. It's beautiful. This is Frisbie.
The band is named not for the flying disc -- though they probably aren't complaining about the allusion -- but for one of the lead singers, Steve Frisbie, whose insanely mellifluous voice ties together the band members' separate talents. The other lead singer is Liam Davis, who used to be in a defunct Chicago pop band called the Moviegoers (a band that also included my brother, which is the only reason I've heard of Frisbie). The bassist, Eddie Carlson, used to be in the nearly forgotten multi-instrumental pop outfit Poi Dog Pondering. All five members -- the other two being the drummer, Zack Cantor, and the keyboardist and trumpeter, Ross Bergseth -- write songs. And all of them sing. There's more harmony than on "Bohemian Rhapsody," and none of it's bad.
Some of the songs are basic self-conscious pop gems, and these are the ones most directly reminiscent of Big Star. "Pollyanna" goes under this heading, and so does "Disaster." On another album these tracks might be standouts, but on "The Subversive Sounds of Love" they are overwhelmed by a group of songs that are truly not reminiscent of anything, musically or lyrically.
"Shine," for instance, opens with a simple ringing acoustic guitar, insistently strumming a chord. The singer comes in loud. The mood is urgent, and he doesn't want to waste time building up to it.
My world is a blanket curled
Up into a mattress on the floor,
And my sky is a white-gray eye
Looking down into what I was before,
The chord starts to chug, growing louder. Something's got to happen. If this were a Violent Femmes record, they'd be about to tear off into the chorus; they'd be about to get nasty. Instead there's a single shot on the snare drum -- pop -- and without warning the song becomes gorgeous. It all takes place on one beat. Three-part harmony, organ, cymbals.
Everything is clear
You're wicked and
Let the light in here
"Shine" will take you back to the days when you could savor "The Joshua Tree" without irony. But even this number isn't adequate preparation for the album's real masterpiece, a song called "Wrecking Ball." Let me urge you, the first time you play this song, to play it loud. If you live with your parents, just stick your head inside the speaker and put it on 5. There's a brief rattle of sticks on snare, like somebody coughing, and then the song explodes in big fuzzy minor-key power chords. The bass is way, way down, surging, and the drummer is playing for his life. A high voice -- the only pop voice I've ever heard that sounds like Jon Anderson from Yes, with the same sort of robot-trying-to-be-human pathos -- invites us to:
Come and hear the bells chime.
But there's already something off about the invitation. It's like the bells have been silent for a long time, but he's still talking about them. It's like a homeless guy coming up to you on the street and saying, "Come into my mansion, won't you?" Then we hear the background voices, encouraging him:
We could get through this,
We could get through
So he keeps singing:
And the voices answer back:
You wait for me, and
I wait for you
Then the chorus opens up, the voices coming together in layers, agreeing:
So if all you've got
Is a little Camelot,
You just break it down
To the ones and the twos
I'm not sure what breaking down Camelot to the ones and the twos would involve. But all my favorite lyrics make no sense. They're not supposed to be poetry -- that's when they get awful, when somebody tries to set poetry to a pop song. Rimbaud wrote poetry, and it doesn't go well with guitar. Even Dylan understands this fact, which is why he's always careful to remind people that he's not a poet. The best pop lyrics sound as if someone has been handed a bunch of fortune-cookie fortunes and told to line them up in a way that would hint at the meaning of life. It's the singer's ability to convince you that these are the only words he could possibly be singing at that moment that matters, and in the case of "Wrecking Ball," you are utterly convinced. After he holds the word "twos" for a while, he remembers why he's singing this song in the first place. It's some sort of kiss-off:
And if all you can
Is just barely give a damn,
You just make the call
This wrecking ball is for you.
Then the music dissolves -- melts, really, like a frame of film stuck in a projector -- back to fuzz and cymbal crashes. Oh, and there's a trumpet now, too. And this is when my favorite moment of this entire record happens. The band settles together onto one chord, something major. They're all throbbing, but they're caught in this one chord and they can't get out. The bassist is trying little runs, but they aren't taking him anywhere. You're listening to this and you're thinking, Where are they going to go? Bar after bar goes by and the only thing that's changing is that the song's getting louder. You can see them looking at one another nervously in the studio. How does this song end? Then they figure it out: Let's just embrace it. The trumpet climbs, the bass and drums lock in, and the voices, all at the tops of their registers, return, repeating one line:
Come and hear
Over and over. And this is the way it ends. The song never leaves that chord. The band just rides it into the sunset, harmonizing beautifully. It's one of the oddest song structures -- not in a clever sense, not with all sorts of rhythm changes and transpositions, but in an animal way, like it was written by someone who'd never written a song before but had all this emotion to body forth and thought, Why not?
"The Subversive Sounds of Love" is not a perfect record. After "Wrecking Ball" it hits an unfortunate slow stretch. "Booksong" is an adequate ballad but, to my taste, sort of sappy, and the unexciting power pop of "Vertigogo" was meant for a B-side.
These lapses are redeemed by the closing song, "The Shuffle," which I despised at first (as I think most people will) but which slowly, after repeated exposure, wormed itself into my affections. It's like Freddie Mercury and Sgt. Pepper have shown up to join the lads in a ring dance, and they all go spinning off into the beyond, singing:
It's for real,
It's the real deal,
For the wonder
That we're under
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"The Subversive Sounds of Love is available directly from the Hear Diagonally Web site.