“A Certain Romance:” A Pop Revival Primer, Part I (2006-08)

If you look at the rock landscape of the mid-2000s, you might be confused. Sluggish post-grunge continued to be pumped out by the big record companies, but most everyone had moved on to sneering pop-punk, twee, and garage rock revival. Indie stations liked to play New Wave revivalists and Dance Punks like Franz Ferdinand, which received little airplay but were frequently heard in film and television. At this point in the decade, film and television were dictating musical tastes in a way radio no longer could. If this sounds like complete chaos, it wasn’t. The boundaries between genres–and the people listening–would never be more clear than they were then.

Pop Revival is the result; a genre blending classic pop and rock with contemporary sensibility. Pop Revival had the good fortune of sharing a common aesthetic with other cultural phenomena–Mad Men, American Apparel, Tumblr–that arrived just at the right time. But back in 2006, the future of rock wasn’t nearly as certain.

I say 2006 because to understand the genre you must understand two bands, both of which debuted that year. Arctic Monkeys began in the same vein as the “Rock is Back” bands of a few years earlier, but early on they possessed a defiantly “retro” touch that got stronger with time. Arctic Monkeys also made history as the first band to become a huge success by giving their music away for free. Not only did it number the days of Sony and their ilk, it demolished the wall between the band and the audience. Whereas bands in previous eras were untouchable Olympians in gold mansions, it would be no great surprise to turn a corner in your own town and see Alex Turner buying potatoes. Rock stars became musicians, idolatry was now admiration.

While Arctic Monkeys had more name recognition, The Fratellis were a sleeper hit. In the six years since their first album Costello Music was released, I’ve heard no fewer than six of its tracks scattered across innumerable movies and television shows. But more than success, The Fratellis had a look, an unforgettable aesthetic typified not only by Costello Music‘s content, but it’s album art:

Most of all, these two bands had heart. In the decade that gave us Apple Bottoms, The Pussycat Dolls, and Paris Hilton, The Fratellis said “no, not us,” and reminded the world that it was possible to be sexy, not slutty, even while the Arctic Monkeys bemoaned that the chavs had taken over in their epic song “A Certain Romance.”

Arctic Monkeys and the Fratellis arrived long after the other garage rockers, making them fresh voices in a declining genre which the smart set, the early hipsters, propelled to runaway success.

While Arctic Monkeys helped create Pop Revival, the transition into a new genre was not smooth. Their third album Humbug, as well as the back half of Favourite Worst Nightmare, tell the story of a band looking for direction as its contemporaries fall by the wayside (the Fratellis broke up in 2009). Luckily, other bands arrived to pick up the slack.

Next time: Neomodernism comes to New York.

Foo Fighters – “Stranger Things Have Happened”

When: Pre-dawn 17 December 2007
Where: North Lake Avenue
Who: Nobody
Weather: Freezing

It had all been very depressing, and now I was to begin my finals. That morning was colder than it had been since I’d been going out so early. With all the death around me, I went into a small-c christian mood (even though I was Jewish, the terminology is irrelevant) and decided to make up for my more insensitive past. I went to go see Annie.

Next: The Sorrow and the Glory: 2008.

Smashing Pumpkins – “Tarantula”

When: July 2007
Where: Jim MacQuarrie’s car
Who: Several people
Weather: Hot but unseasonably humid.

Smashing Pumpkins in name only of course.

Some friends of mine were going down to Monterey Park to get some business cards. I was particularly excited to get a box of free business cards for my mostly theoretical production company Septentrionale.

Next: Velvet Revolver, now that’s problematic.

Incubus – “Rogues”

When: January 2012
Where: Northbound M20 on San Gabriel Boulevard
Who: Assorted students
Weather: cold, clear

It was an unusually cold winter in Pasadena. Citrus crops were ruined, pipes burst, lawns turned white, and in an unprecedented act, I wore a jacket over my sweatshirt. This was the last time anyone cared about Incubus.

My favorite teacher, Mr. Montes, had just left Bosco, and his replacement…well, he wasn’t worthy. He was a cholo reasearching the role of Mexican-Americans in World War II, and the actual teaching was somewhat secondary. At one point he seemed to support executing the mentally ill.

For the most part he showed us movies, including Blade Runner, which was my first experience of the film, and I didn’t initially like it. Listening to this album initially put me in mind of the soundtrack to that film, but that wore off and I got some good mileage out of the album.

I was done with Incubus, it was time for something new. I yearned for a more adventurous life, and I was soon to get one.

Next: “Are they Argentines or Argentinians?”

Foo Fighters – “Ain’t It the Life”

When: 21 November 2006
Where: Valley and San Gabriel Boulevards
Who: Several classmates, several students at a rival school
Weather: Sunny

For some reason on the day after the midterm elections, we got a half-day at school and my mom, who was somehow also off work, took me to Canterbury Records on Colorado. She bought Incubus’ Light Grenades (as I mentioned before), I bought AFI’s Decemberunderground and There is Nothing Left to Lose by the Foo Fighters, the only one of their albums I didn’t have. I spent the following day absorbing it.

It was a busy time– I was catching up on 24, trying to get a film festival started at Bosco, and everybody was watching the Polonium story unfolding overseas in the hope it would lead to a new Cold War.. Most notably I was in the process of writing my first feature script, not counting Dublin. This was a comedy, set in the early sixties and written as a ploy to get closer to a girl who went to Gabrielino. It was my first attempt at sweetness; sadly if any hard copy of the script still exists, I have yet to find it.

We rode the bus home every night, in the encroaching dark and often alone, as I took the opportunity to get my friends to review the screenplay. I dubbed us “Team Huddy.” I’d been recently listening to Al Franken’s book on CD, but this Foo Fighters album was often my companion on the long rides home.

Bodies had been showing up in the middle of the street on the way to school lately, which aside from being disturbing and inexplicable created massive detours that caused tons of trouble not only for us, but for the students at Gabrielino High School which was on our way. I had a huge crush on a girl who went there, but that’s for a whole other series.

Anyway, one of the bodies finally showed up in front of their school, and as the traffic here was already impossibly bad, we took an hour through residential streets to traverse one net block. That’s when I saw the body. In the spirit of seeing something so gruesome, I thought it appropriate to listen to something completely at odds with the situation. So I played “Ain’t it the Life,” and I never forgot it.

Next: Wives and knives

Incubus – “Anna Molly”

When: November 2006
Where: Eastbound on Foothill Boulevard
Who: My mother
Weather: foggy

When Steven Hyden of the AV Club praised Stone Temple Pilots after years of ridicule, I breathed a sigh of relief. Even if some of the smartest guys in the room didn’t love the things I liked, there was a good chance history would vindicate me. I’d now like to take that tactic with another band that doesn’t get any respect: Incubus. Particularly, their ambitious-but-troubled sixth album Light Grenades.

Light Grenades gets a lot of shit for “Love Hurts,” and while it does have quite a few duds, the good is so good. It opens with some ass-kicking Blade-Runner soundtrack stuff and goes into full-on concept album mode, and many of the songs that were played on the radio are better in this context. Even if it isn’t the best thing in the world, Boyd and company deserve credit for trying, because otherwise we’d just have Nickelback and Ke$ha.

Next: My first cadaver