I’ll be honest. I don’t know shit about pop music. Actually, I know as much as anyone who spent his/her formative years in America in the 1980s. To get a girl to fall in love with you, just be a sensitive nerd, and hold a boombox up to her window and play her some tender-guy song, like “In Your Eyes”. Not surprisingly, despite my love for a wide variety of other types of music, pop music always seemed to fall short. But after spending years getting hip to Shuggie Otis, Curtis Mayfield, Elvis Costello and other pop songwriters, it hit me that pop music is far more ubiquitous among respectable musicians than my limited vision could ever realize.
Michael Jackson was a badass back in the eighties. It wasn’t just that he was still black and had his real nose. His album Thriller had bite. Sure it sold millions and was engineered to be consumed by anyone under the age of 60. But Michael Jackson could actually write songs. I didn’t realize that until last summer when, in a treehouse village in Olympia, Turkey, a group of international travelers representing no less than 15 countries played “Billie Jean” with acoustic guitars and bongos. In that strange context, when the song was presented to me naked of its studio wizardry, it still stood up beautifully. As with many other genres, indie pop hath sprung forth from the wells of the larger commercial version of pop. Kevin Tihista is one of the finer contemporary songwriters writing pop on the indie level that helps close-minded fools like the old me wise up.
A recent show at the Fez in New York City was unfortunately more a showcase for Tihista’s agoraphobia than it was his music. As a part of the CMJ festival, Tihista’s set was incredibly short and he seemed to be in pain for the duration of his time on stage. Yet, pop music in the hands of Kevin Tihista becomes quite lofty, rising above the plateau of mere entertainment. He barely opened his eyes while at the mike, splitting his set with a few songs from Don’t Breathe a Word as well as Judo. People talked through his first song or two, and he barely seemed to notice. It was painful to watch for someone like myself who is a fan of his recorded work. Like the story for the worst show he ever played being acted out in front of us, and as a chatty audience we were all a guilty part of it.
But then something shifted. Those spine-tingling chords in the middle of the neck of the guitar that Tihista has a penchant for finding started to add up. His howling on “Still Not Enough” stopped people in the middle of their conversations. And the earnest voice of a guy who perhaps once played “In Your Eyes” on his boombox busted to pieces that wall of background noise produced by a cafe full of two hundred people. Beauty that lurked underneath his humble stage-less presence came to the forefront. By the time “Lose That Dress” came around on the gee-tar, people were hooked. That song alone made me buy the album. It’s a hilarious, sly piece of songwriting that would stand out on any airwave.
Tihista’s recorded work is very tied to the studio, but not reliant on it in any way for strength. Live, his melodies might become muddled, but in no way is their brilliance muted. It was frustrating to watch a songwriter with so much talent stumble on stage, but Tihista’s talent is obvious to those patient enough to wait around that side of his musicianship. Push play on Don’t Breathe a Word and you’ll no longer need to be convinced.