[1 June 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There’s something to be said for simple pleasures. Who doesn’t like a sweet melody, a quick two-minute pop song? Who doesn’t sometimes some music that just sounds good, that you don’t have to figure out and overanalyze and break down? Don’t we all need a break sometimes? Seapony thinks so. This Seattle trio has, in Go With Me, created a no-frills pop record start to finish. It’s got 12 songs, it clocks in under 35 minutes, and it’s all about the sweet hook, the straight-ahead vocal melody, the quick punch.
It’s not an unprecedented approach, of course. The Ramones did it, as did Belle & Sebastian in a very different way. Even the Magnetic Fields, who can be ornate, usually focus on simple melodies; that’s what 69 Love Songs, even with its genre-hopping, is all about. But these bands at their most simple sound downright lush in comparison to Seapony.
“Dreaming”, the first song on the record and the track that quickly got Seapony some serious attention, lays their cards out on the table. Danny Rowland’s guitar work comes right at you, with a snapping riff over warm chords. It lays a nice bed for singer Jen Weidl’s languid vocals, and bassist Ian Brewer follows Rowland’s lead through much of the record. “Whenever I see you,” Weidl sings, “I know my dreams are coming true.” This is the kind of simple sentiment that comes up all over this record. There is no pretense of poetry or metaphor, no complex wordplay, just plainspoken declarations of love, of not wanting to lose someone important.
If there’s something compelling in that lyrical approach, it’s that Rowland wrote the songs about Weidl—they’re a couple—and Weidl sings them. So, in essence, she is singing love songs to herself. The trouble is that’s about the only thing you might find compelling about these words. While for one song this kind of direct approach might be enjoyable, even refreshing, the trick wears off quickly. Even when they almost stretch out—at nearly four minutes, “I Really Do” seems epic—the melodies stay basic, but not terribly tight. They craft an aesthetic here—with that one guitar tone, the limited range of those dreamy vocals, etc.—but they adhere to it with a mulish stubbornness. This isn’t the Thermals, where the hooks cut and the vocals bleat, these songs seem to want it both ways: aimless, gauzy pop tunes with strict boundaries.
Unfortunately, the songs are never bigger than their modest parts. The Ramones, as basic as they were, pushed against pretentious rock tropes. Belle & Sebastian, trying as they can be, mix up basic melodies with compelling details, clever wordplay, and a sense of personality. Seapony doesn’t seem to do either of these things. They seem averse to detail, offering up cast-off rhymes like “I am so low when you go” in place of anything distinct or remotely emotive. As the album’s monotony wears on—“I Never Would” sounds like “Into the Sea” sounds like “Always” and so on—this basic approach takes on its own kind of pretentiousness. There’s something self-satisfied about the plainness of these tracks, so what starts as pop purity becomes pop music with blinders on. One big question is why there are no live drums here. The band relies on a drum machine that delivers only the barest possible beats for these songs. Rather than complicate the mix with intricate, or even vaguely propulsive drumming, the simple percussion calls too much attention to the by-the-numbers pop the band delivers.
It’s all well and good to call out overworked pop music—there’s certainly plenty of it out there—but Seapony, so far anyway, aims to sound simple for simplicity’s sake. They’re a young band, and can snap off a hook as good as anyone, so there’s plenty of time to build on what they’ve got here. They seem to know how they want to say something on Go With Me, and it’s a formula that could work in its humble way. They just need to figure out what they’re saying first. Simple pleasures are always welcome, but if they’re not distinct, they become more fleeting than simple.