Here's Where The Strings Come In Soft Pop and the New Melodic Explorers

Here's Where The Strings Come In Soft Pop and the New Melodic Explorers
"White-bread, saccharine, fake flower-power schmaltz... conveying the daffy zing of toothpaste ads."

So reads The Rolling Stone Album Guide's assessment of the recorded works of the Association, a '60s pop vocal group whose biggest hits, "Windy" and "Along Comes Mary," are as much a signature of the heyday of hippie as lava lamps or bong resin.

"The Association was a terrible band," moans Bones Howe, the legendary L.A. record producer whose midas touch reversed the band's ailing commercial fortunes into Top Ten gold. "None of those guys could play," he says, "although, vocally they were very good."

Howe's role as the Association's producer involved not only cutting their records, but also selecting their backing musicians, and trawling the repertoires of professional songwriters for the group's material. But Howe abandoned them after two albums, claiming that their lobbying for greater artistic control was destroying their career. The final straw came when the group rejected a song presented to them in 1968 by red-hot songwriter Jimmy Webb, claming that "any two guys in this band can write better songs than that." That song, "MacArthur Park," was within months a worldwide smash for actor Richard Harris, eventually becoming one of the most lucrative songs of all time.

It should be stupefying, then, that the Association - apparently clueless, manipulated, and not particularly talented - is now actually an inspiration to some of the world's most critically revered and melodically progressive artists, among them Stereolab, the High Llamas, Jim O'Rourke, and virtually every club pop act Japan has thrown up.

Yet despite the ludicrous circumstances under which they were made, the records of the Association (and of many other similarly cobbled and coddled groups of their era) offer a depth of composition and harmony unlike anything else ever contrived as "commercial pop music."

Some of these artists sustained their success for years (the Mamas & the Papas, the Fifth Dimension); some had one hit before succumbing to changing trends or circumstance (Harpers Bizzare, the Left Banke); others never received their due (Sagittarius, the Sundowners). What united them all was a stunning sound that may be the last popular music of the overanalysed '60s to receive serious critical regard.

Shunning the aggressive, primitive rhythms and prominent electric guitars that define rock, this music favours the decidedly un-rock likes of vibraphones, full orchestras, and the sort of dizzyingly complex, stacked vocal harmonies more often found in the jazz and easy listening music that preceded the Beatles' slate-cleaning arrival. That it was perceived as psychedelic at all (essential to its acceptance by the "turned on" millions) was due to the most tenuous of commercial concessions: the word "groovy" in the chorus, a Nehru jacket like the one Lennon was wearing for the lead singer.

Contemporary musicians interested in using melody as a base for experimentation, rather than noise, have little to look to in modern pop for ideas. Great pop is still being made, but is increasingly reductive both rhythmically and melodically. Comforting maybe, but never surprising. And so this older music has come to represent a fascinating, vastly underexposed area, full of ideas ripe for picking.

Meanwhile, a small but fiercely obsessive cult of collectors worldwide is devoting hundreds of hours and dollars to seeking out records that exemplify this sound of white-bread, saccharine schmaltz.

But what else to call this sound? At least, by those who happen to like it? Not even self-proclaimed fanatics know who coined the term "soft pop," but all of them seem to agree that it's just about perfect. All except, perhaps, for New Jersey-based music writer Dawn Eden, whose voracious research of some of the genre's most obscure luminaries has graced dozens of CD reissues. "I really don't like the term 'soft pop,'" she writes by email, "because it implies that there's no complexity to it - just pop music played soft. But I haven't been able to come up with anything better, so soft pop it is."

David Bash, another soft pop zealot who waxes enthusiastic in several American music magazines, agrees that "it's definitely a nebulous term. For one thing, the term itself is not universally used. A lot of fans of the genre call it soft rock. You'll see that term used in some Japanese literature."

Japan, in fact, pioneered the renewed interest in soft pop as long ago as the late '80s. This shouldn't be surprising, given the nation's history of embracing archaic art forms of which the rest of the world was either never aware or has abandoned. Andrew Sandoval, a Californian musician and pop historian whose annotation graces the most recent edition of the Beach Boys'Pet Sounds , says, "I first heard the term 'soft pop' used by Japanese collectors to drive up the price of records that were in the 99 cent bins all through the '80s and early '90s."

Pizzicato Five is a playful mix of every form of light music of the past 40 years.

Pizzicato Five, the Japanese duo whose sound is a playful mix and match of virtually every form of light music of the past 40 years, are stars in their native country and underground favourites almost everywhere else. They were instrumental in generating interest in soft pop among their young, impressionable, and sizeable audience, who were eager to hear the music that informed that of their new heroes. Yoshiro Nagato, a Tokyo-based reissue producer responsible for bringing dozens of vintage, ultra-rare soft pop albums into the digital age, credited the group in England's Mojo magazine for the strong domestic sales of his projects - some having sold in the tens of thousands.

But where the music of Pizzicato Five cheekily quotes its sources directly, via sampling or painstaking replication, the most vital modern descendants of soft pop seek to create their own unique extension of the genre's original exploratory imperative - to offer as sophisticated an alternative now as, say, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds did in its time.

Stereolab have long been among the best of this bunch, but the group's sonic mastermind, Tim Gane, isn't aware of the term "soft pop." He understands immediately, however, when a laundry list of artists is presented.

Like a lot of his peers, Gane is interested in combining various styles of music to create hybrids that sound unlike anything else. And despite his background in avant garde noise, Stereolab's career has been a continuing exploration of the possibilities of melody, which has lead them to appropriate sounds and draw inspiration from all sorts of places far removed from rock: lounge music, easy listening vocal groups, and yes, soft pop.

Stereolab's fantastically titled new album, Cobra & Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night , is their best yet - astonishing for a sixth album from a nine-year-old band. Like its predecessor, 1997'sDots And Loops , it leaves behind virtually any previous traces of rock influence. The regimented 4/4 beats and two-chord guitar mantras that defined their early sound have fallen away to reveal a much more dextrous and, consequently, surprising band. Improved musicianship and a confident synergy between vocalists Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen mean that the band can execute virtually whatever it sets to mind.

Surprisingly, many of Stereolab's most obsessive longtime fans felt let down byDots And Loops , complaining that its absence of guitars and rock-like momentum was a betrayal of the band's best virtues.Milky Night , essentially a deeper, richer elaboration onDots ' mellow moods, could cause yet more wringing of hands.

Gane is aware of but undeterred by this, although he hastens to add that, "there's as much guitar on [Milky ] as there ever has been. It's just we choose to record them in a different way to expand on what you can do." He equates the resistance to progress by some of his audience with the avant garde community's longtime dismissal of the band, who claim them to be insubstantial for using melody and pop structures.

"Melody can be as strange and affecting as any piece of avant garde noise." -Stereolab's Tim Gane

"You can be just as exploratory or experimental with pop music as you can with anything else," he explains, without a hint of irritation. "Part of the reason we chose pop music to do this sort of thing is because it's a really easy, malleable form and it's something that I personally enjoy and have a lot of intuitive connections with. To me, absolutely the most powerful thing in music is melody. It can be as strange and affecting as any piece of avant garde noise."

A group who fulfil this assertion perfectly, and whose presence is greatly felt on Milky (not least for the fact that a song is named after them) is the Free Design. A family group from New York State, their almost surreally bouncy, feminine harmonies are echoed to great affect by Laetitia and Mary. But where the Free Design may be the most aggressively whimsical of all soft pop groups (their biggest hit, 1967's "Kites Are Fun," is exactly about what its title implies), Stereolab wisely resist lifting elements that have no relevance to their own lives for the sake of nostalgia. Instead, they use these harmonies in the service of Laetitia's highly personal - and often inscrutable - lyrics, many of which are endorsements of Marxist values.

Lyrics are an aspect of original soft pop that could never be brought convincingly into the present. A verbal equivalent of its aural contents, soft pop lyrics exist in blissful ignorance of the turbulent times in which they were created. Utopian at worst in 1969, it now reads as downright archaic after 30 more years of sexual and political upheaval. David Bash describes them best, as reports from "a world without genitals."

"This is not meant to be derisive in any way," he laughs from his Los Angeles home, "but there is not one bit of sexual element in soft pop. It's all about romance. It's all about young men and women gazing lovingly into each other's eyes and thinking about how happily-ever-after they'll be."

Andrew Sandoval attributes these anti-rock sentiments (rock & roll itself being a euphemism for sex) to the fact that many of soft pop's prime movers came from backgrounds completely outside of the rock world. Bones Howe's testimony proves this to be true.

"I came out of the jazz world," he admits. "I made disguised jazz records, everybody said. The harmonies in the Fifth Dimension records are like the Four Freshmen," (a varsity sweater-wearing, G-rated '50s vocal group). "I'd talk about vocal harmonies with Brian Wilson. He'd say, 'Oh yeah, I really thought the Four Freshmen were so great. They really blew my mind.' Here we were, all sort of stewing in the same pot."

But, notes Sandoval, "If it wasn't for the Beatles being popular and, therefore, influencing others, I don't think we would even be discussing this. Even the Beach Boys' music got better because of the Beatles. Note that many of the same producers' and songwriters' output prior to and after the Beatles is nowhere near as interesting."

Whatever the case, spurred by enthusiasm for the new music or the promise of a fatter paycheque, these "squares" moved into pop, leaving their indelible marks upon all that they touched.

Unsurprisingly then, most modern descendants of soft pop have also never been involved in rock. What's more, they all seem to have found each other. Chief among Stereolab's outside contributors to Milky are Jim O'Rourke, John McEntire and Sean O'Hagan,. O'Rourke and McEntire, both Chicagoians, come from backgrounds in experimental instrumental music. A frighteningly talented multi-instrumentalist, O'Rourke has recorded under his own name and as part of Gastr Del Sol with David Grubbs. After years of dealing almost exclusively in challenging, noise-based music, Gastr Del Sol bowed out with the gentle, accessible Camofleur album in 1998. O'Rourke's two subsequent solo albums have been beautiful; the most recent, this year'sEureka , is a sumptuous, melodic feast that features a Burt Bacharach/Hal David cover and, for the first time, O'Rourke's own benevolent vocals. Upon its release he said, "More and more I've felt that people who work in the song format have a better means of conveying certain messages and feelings."

Tortoise percussionist and producer John McEntire has co-produced and played numerous instruments for Stereolab since their 1996 album,Emperor Tomato Ketchup . Although also drawing from music as disparate as Krautrock and 20th century classical composers such as Steve Reich, Tortoise always operate from a base of calm, layered melodicism.

Sean O'Hagan, however, has always answered to pop melodies first. An auxiliary member of Stereolab since 1993, contributing impeccable brass and string arrangements, he began as a member of '80s Irish group, Microdisney. Pairing off his melodies with singer Cathal Coughlan's sweetly crooned, razor-sharp invective, a Melody Maker writer described one of their albums as "Steely Dan as performed by the cast ofReservoir Dogs ."

In 1995, O'Hagan released the first full-length album by his own group, the High Llamas, calledGideon Gaye . Although he's reluctant to acknowledge it as such, Gideon Gaye was an unprecedented achievement. Doing justice to its influences of post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys, Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, and the spectre of early '70s AM radio, it never smacks of direct tribute. Featuring rich string arrangements, always surprising song structures, and a knockout 13-minute flute solo, O'Hagan recorded it for less than $10,000. It sold modestly, but eventually fell into the hands of scores of musicians and fans alike who had been waiting for a new artist that would address the lack of ambition in pop music, but still deliver the visceral thrill of the three-minute song. Gideon Gaye is largely responsible for Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach becoming hip reference points again, and for bucket loads of mediocre music that claims Pet Sounds as an influence because of one choked, off-key harmony.

"When we made Gideon Gaye ," says O'Hagan now, "our instincts were unchallengable. The idea that we may have been rehabilitating previous sounds never occurred to me. It's easy to forget just how bankrupt the rock establishment was back then. The sounds that surrounded us at the time were so jaded that something had to change, and it did."

Understandably annoyed at having become little more than a Brian Wilson disciple to scores of misinformed critics (particularly following an aborted attempt to assist in producing a new Beach Boys album, at the group's request), O'Hagan is eager to move on. Last year's mini-album of electronic remixes, Lollo Rosso , displayed his long-time love of dance music. The upcoming Snowbug , the High Llamas' fourth proper album, should finally jettison any accusations of stylistic myopia. Taking in his love of Brazilian pop and Italian soundtrack composers, O'Hagan also acknowledges that one track began as a "mild nod" to the Association. He still finds soft pop to be an endless mine for untapped innovation, and concedes that, among the many people now attempting to appropriate from it for their own music, "more often than not, they get it wrong. A small number of talented people get it right. I find that the people who use the more traditional rock and roll set-up to reflect this music to be the least intuitive."

Instead, O'Hagan looks to artists who don't attempt to offer literal translations of soft pop's original sound, including O'Rourke, Tortoise, even ambient minimalists Labradford.

"You could argue that this group of people are musically diverse," he says, "but they all seem to share musical reference points. Interested parties aren't always found in the obvious places, [but] are attracted to the exploratory imperative found in, say, a Bones Howe production or even the choice of harmony the Fifth Dimension or the Free Design would be drawn to."

"I don't want a soft pop revival - a mass of sheep trampling over one another to make their album sound like Pet Sounds." -Soft pop scholar Dawn Eden

Dawn Eden, at least theoretically, agrees. "I don't know if I would want a 'legitimate' soft pop revival," she says. "I'd rather see individual people exercising their creativity than a mass of sheep trampling over one another to see who can make their album sound the most likePet Sounds ."

The underground being almost as volatile as the mainstream, however, Andrew Sandoval's speculation that "interest may be transient" is valid. Ultimately, the best comment on the lasting influence soft pop - or of any worthwhile music - comes from Bones Howe, whose widescreen productions are responsible for some the genre's best moments: "Every record that was better musically, gave permission to make an even better record next time, and a better record next time."

As in the past, so in the future.

For more information on any of the groups or recordings discussed here, please contact Mike White at [email protected]