I can't believe I don't hate this. No, seriously; I'm a little disturbed about it. I first listened to transplanted Swedish (they now live in California, apparently) quintet Last AmAndA's self-titled debut reluctantly, thinking for sure that I'd pan this quick and move on -- I mean, come on, they're doing that sMaLL-bIG capitalization thing, which is almost always a signal of impending crappiness. And yet, well, here I am, still listening to Andreas Magnusson and Magnus Sandberg rock their echoey guitars, Peter Limber and Nicholas Oja rumble along beneath, and Mårten Larsson roar defiantly about, um...okay, I'll admit it, I have no freakin' clue what he's singing about. Don't get me wrong -- Larsson's lyrics are all in English, but they're all extremely vague and personal, to the point that they're utterly nondescript and meaningless to anyone but (I'm guessing) Larsson and maybe his bandmates.
So what's the deal, here? Why am I not only still listening to this, but, God help me, actually liking it? Setting aside any smart-assed remarks about my obvious lack of musical taste, the only explanation that makes sense is just that the songs are so freakin' catchy. Tracks like "Can't Stand Myself," "Stay," and "I Will," while mining a vein of mid-'90s pop-rock (think Bush, married with the emotion of Live and a little bit of U2's style), are at their core just pop songs, and addictively well-written ones, too. Forget the lyrics; it's the melodies, the song structures, the shiny, crunchy guitars that drag you along. The closest parallel I can come up with is the significantly-cheesier '80s band The Outfield (yes, the "Your Love" band) -- back in high school, I became terrifying addicted to their debut disc, despite the utter insipidity of the lyrics and subject matter, and why? Well, because for all their flaws, those two Outfield guys were freakishly good pop songwriters.
Same goes for Last AmAndA. Following in the footsteps of their countrymen/-women in ABBA, Larsson, Magnusson, and the rest have seemingly been assiduously studying the dynamics of pop long enough to know exactly what to do and when to do it -- to the point that I can almost predict, song-by-song, where they're headed. Oddly, that predictability isn't a liability here, but rather creates a warm familiarity, placing them right where they want to be in that grand continuum of rock bands throughout history.
For me, at least, this album's like candy: I probably won't remember a bit of it by this evening, it's true, but for right now, anyway, it's fun to take it all in and foot-drum along. Take that for what it's worth. (JH)
(F.E.A. Records -- http://www.lastamanda.com/)
Love as Laughter
In recent discussions of rock music, the term "college rock," which once referred to the type of pop music favored by college radio stations and students, has often been eclipsed by the term "indie-rock," the criteria of which are more related to the way the music is produced and marketed. The reasons for this shift are manifold. One is that the markets that dictate the fortunes of this music are no longer necessarily collegiate, since they often include consumers both younger and older than college-age, and since college radio has become so much a subsidiary of the music industry as to have made itself irrelevant as an aesthetic benchmark. Another is that, while "college rock" referred largely to music produced in the 1980s and early '90s by major and large independent record labels in much the same way as other pop music, what is now called "indie-rock" is usually -- though not always -- produced by independent labels that began by releasing punk rock on a regional basis, though indie-rock superficially often seems to have little in common with that tradition.
Sub Pop is one of the foremost "indie-rock" record labels, having been the original home of Nirvana, whose explosion into the mainstream precipitated the industry shift of which the change in question is related, Sebadoh, who bridged the two categories and may have coined the term "indie-rock," and Sunny Day Real Estate, who introduced an entire generation of listeners to what is called either "emo-influenced indie-rock" or "post-emo rock" or "emo-rock" or even simply (and inaccurately) "emo." And it is into the genre of "indie-rock" that nearly all of Sub-Pop's recent releases fall, including Love as Laughter's Laughter's Fifth.
LAL is an interesting test case for the discussion above, since, as is common in indie-rock today, they seem to share little with the heavily punk-influenced classic Sub Pop catalog. This is not to suggest that their sound is ahistorical; rather, they are perfectly conscious of continuing in a tradition. Although they correctly construe that much, however, they (or their publicists) incorrectly identify the tradition to which they do belong as that of classic-rock songwriters like Tom Petty and Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, when their actual forbears are two of the quintessential college rock bands: Pavement and (to a lesser extent) the Pixies. Songs like "Every Midnight Song" display this lineage clearly in their structure and harmonic character.
There's nothing at all wrong with borrowing from tradition; on the contrary, it's unavoidable. The obvious similarity between Love as Laughter and Pavement, however, points up two major weaknesses of the former. First, Sam Jayne is no match for Stephen Malkmus as a lyricist. Malkmus's work with Pavement was unique and strange, whereas Jayne's lyrics are basically average. This makes "I Am A Ghost" and "Makeshift Heart," for example, non-starters. It's less of a problem on the slacker-anthemic "Canal Street," in which Jayne's relative lack of distinction becomes a sort of everymannishness that serves the song's thematic material, and on the Pixies-influenced "In Amber," in which Jayne is content to toss off a few hipster witticisms -- "Didja see me as Encino Man?" -- and then let the music tell the rest of the story. This example brings us to the other problem, however: that comparison, even discounting Frank Black, is unfavorable to Love as Laughter, because they lack the innovative power of the Pixies. And that's what dooms them in comparison to Pavement, as well.
LAL's error is that they mistake the source of the power of these college-rock superheroes. Though they made pop music that seems to have had much to do with classic rock, that wasn't their goal. Pavement and the Pixies came out of the tradition of punk rock, headed toward an ideal of rock songwriting. Their sound was the expression of that ideal through their personal technique and experience. That was where their universality came from, not from imitation of other successful songwriters.
Love as Laugher comes across in this context as attempting to reverse-engineer "college rock" from the position where "indie-rock" is already dominant, creating sort of a college-rock nostalgia sound. And perhaps there's a sort of aptness to this idea. Love as Laughter is attractive, bright, and well-adjusted, which is about much as one can expect from a college student until they get out there and make their own place in the world. (DM)
(Sub Pop Records -- P.O. Box 20367, Seattle, WA. 98102; http://www.subpop.com/; Love as Laughter -- http://www.loveaslaughter.net/)