It’s all here: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Kinks, and a hint of Phil Spector. The A-Sides haven’t even significantly updated it. Not that this is all a bad thing; from a pop songwriting perspective it doesn’t get much better than the ‘60s. The A-Sides know this, and have decided to make an album chock full of all the bright melodies, psychedelic guitars, and lush vocal harmonies that made that time so great. But the band draws no clear line on how much influence is too much, and as a result Hello, Hello is so highly derivative it ultimately lacks its own identity.
The album opens with one of its stronger tracks, “Sidewalk Chalk”. All Kinks guitar and drumming, the song begins with mod stomp and psychedelic guitars before being taken over by the sweet vocal melodies of the chorus. On the following track, the acoustic ballad “Greetings”, the A-Sides give psychedelia a brief rest in favor of tender Beach Boys vocal harmonies. On “Everybody Knows the Way”, the Brian Wilson influence, continues with the faithful reproduction of the bright pianos and bells that dominated the Beach Boys’ music. The song closes with a jangly guitar line and some very Tony Asher lyrics. “You don’t even have to die this way,” repeats vocalist and primary songwriter Jon Barthmus as the song fades. It’s all nostalgia and sunshine, not a likely combination from a band from Philadelphia.
The A-Sides’ music is heavily anchored in the Beatles. “Only Michelle” is all Revolver with some Ringo-style vocals laid over top, “Jump Back Jack” owes a big nod to Beatles ‘65, and although the album closer “Here and There” is much more psychedelic than “Tomorrow never Knows,” it still smacks of Revolver’s sublime closer. Even the song titles are derived versions of the Beatles’: “Here There and Everywhere”, “Hello, Goodbye”, and “My Michelle” are a few.
Not surprisingly the band also relies heavily on the sunshiny, optimism of the lyrics from the time. Here Barthmus borrows far much more inspiration from Brian Wilson than McCartney or Lennon (although traces of McCartney are spread throughout). Most of the lyrics on the album are reminiscent of the optimism that permeated Wilson’s work. Even on Pet Sounds, as the lyrics grew more sophisticated, Wilson’s songs were underpinned by a certain amount of naiveté. Similarly Barthmus’ lyrics sound innocent and fresh without sounding childish.
In addition to the lyrics, frequent splashes of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson production fill out the songs and keep the album shimmering and light. Layered guitars, multi-tracked vocal harmonies, subtle bells and soaring horns and strings all mingle to bring the songs to life. Often the production stays well off in the distance so as not to overpower the songs (headphones are beneficial).
It almost sounds like cheating; comparing a band entirely to all of the classic acts that have influenced every pop act since. It is possible that the album’s closer, “Here and There”, was more influenced by any number of psychedelic shoegazer acts then the Beatles. Other comparisons may be drawn to many members of the Elephant 6 Collective or to Ben Folds, but the longer you listen the more the album becomes the music of McCartney and lyrics of Wilson.
It’s evident that the A-Sides and producer Brian McTear set out to recreate the music they felt strongly about; and in that endeavor they succeeded. However, they also succeeded in watering down the band’s personality with too much of the past. On Hello, Hello the A-Sides recast them in a way that only the best songs manage to grab hold and stick with you.