Low-fi twee indie-pop that snaps and crackles
Cultural observer Alan Light recently declared in the lead of a New York Times review that “The album is dying. As a format of recorded music, the album—LP, CD, record, disc, platter, licorice pizza, whatever—has been tossed aside….For better or worse, pop music has effectively returned to the days before the Beatles arrived, when everything was strictly one single at a time.” That’s good news for artists like Bay Area singer songwriter Allen Clapp. Clapp spent the ‘90s concentrating on making shiny pop singles. Sure, he released two albums during the decade, but the bulk of his creative juices could be found on the 7 inch, 45 rpm records he largely made by himself.
Brian Kirk’s Bus Stop label, which originally issued many of these discs, has just released a 17-track compilation of Clapp’s simple and lovely four-track creations. The disc also features material from other micro-labels, as well as songs previously available only in fanzines, odd anthologies, and other ephemeral recordings. The general lo fidelity functions conversely to give this music a clear beauty. The uncomplicated production forces Clapp to stick to basics, which he does in a strange and resourceful manner. The DIY musician employs everything from weirdly distorted squeals made by his broken down recording equipment to scratchy samples of the drum tracks on old records by the Doors and Donovan to cheap microphones, echo and tape delay effects to produce his distinctive sound.
These 17 cuts would be best heard on an old transistor radio broadcast over the AM frequency through one earplug for full effect, but we live in a digital age. Chances are most listeners will download these songs on the computer and play them on an MP3 with ear buds. That’s okay. Several tracks utilize stereo effects, such as having voices chime in from one channel to the next. The masterpiece at the center of the disc, “Flintstones and Honeycombs”—a previously unreleased demo for his band, Orange Peels— successfully employs multi-tracking and other high fidelity techniques. The result suggests that while Clapp may be adept at tinkering at the low end of the recording budget spectrum, he also knows what to do when given a broader palette to work from.
“Flintstones and Honeycombs” reveals Clapp’s greatest talents and also illustrates his biggest flaw. The song, a catchy ode to doing nothing—i.e. staying home from work and watching junk TV and eating sugary cereal—offers a glimpse into what it means to rebel against authority for modern day youth in meaningless employment. In an age of telemarketing and cubicle work, fast food jobs and retail sales, playing hooky is the only way to stick it to the establishment without suffering major negative consequences. Clapp uses a message on his answering machine as a spoken word chorus to emphasize the naughty behavior. Alas, the song’s narrator doesn’t realize his own complicity in this world of superficial and hollow values as a consumer of mass market crap on the tube and from the supermarket. Clapp rarely goes beyond celebrating feeling good for its own sake.
While Clapp proclaims on another song (“Brown Formica Table”) that he and his friends do not worship the rectangular box “TV antenna stands just like a steeple / we refuse to bow and pray,” Clapp’s best songs reference television programs in odd and unusual ways that show his affection for them, like “How Mary Tyler Moore Really Felt” and the homage to days gone by, “The Sunset”. The latter tune incorporates lyrics from the themes of Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies into a synthesizer-filtered landscape of the American Dream whereby we all walk out west into the mythic Promised Land. Clapp acknowledges that we all “Could have all been CEOs / astronauts and G.I. Joes / in another life,” but his characters seem content with the life they have just watching everybody else on TV.
Of course like all good pop musicians, Clapp sings ditties about the vagaries of love. Tunes like “Very Peculiar Feeling”, “A Change in the Weather”, and the effervescent “Mystery Lawn” would seem right at home alongside twee hits by bands like the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Hollies, or the Yardbirds circa 1965. They convey the bitter sweetness of being lost in a feeling one can’t control or understand, while somehow knowing that it must be that thing called love. As the title song says, “Something Strange Happens” in our lives which can’t be rationally explained, like the pleasure of enjoying good pop for its own sake. Maybe that’s enough to make life worthwhile, though one can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more.