A few months ago, I was all ready to foist “Power Pop Record of the Year” honors on a little band out of Portland, Oregon called the Maroons. Their Youre Gonna Ruin Everything release proved to be one of the most enduring records I’ve heard all year, and one I still listen to practically every week (which is saying something, considering the 30 or so new CDs I receive every month that I have to lend my ears to).
However, The Bigger Lovers, a four-piece out of Philly, may have just dislodged them. With Honey in the Hive, this band has, quite simply, released an absolute marvel of a record. This is the record for anyone who’s loved the three or so perfect songs that Matthew Sweet has deigned to put on every record he puts out, but been slightly frustrated by everything else he fills his records up with. This is the record for the power pop fanatic who sincerely believes that there’s nothing that’s come out in the past 20 years that can hold a candle to Big Star’s immortal Radio City. This is a record so chock-full of catchy songs that, after a few listens, they will launch themselves into repeat mode in your brain. Before you know it, you’ll wake up in the morning humming the chorus to “What Would It Take” or “Bought Your Ghost” or “Ivy Grows”, and you’ll have no alternative but to make a beeline for the stereo and press ‘play’ just one more time.
I first heard of the Bigger Lovers at the same time that I learned of the demise of singer/guitarist Bret Tobias’ old band, Moped. I found the news of Moped’s breakup rather disheartening, since they’d been one of my favorite exponents of the peppy, catchy-yet-rockin’ boy/girl power pop sound(their debut, It Won’t Sound Any Better Tomorrow is well worth seeking out), but was glad to hear that Tobias already had another project in the works. However, The Bigger Lovers’ debut, How I Learned to Stop Worrying took forever to make its appearance. When it finally did appear nearly two years after I’d first heard the band’s name, it registered as a bit of surprise, as it was quite a departure from Moped’s speedy, Superchunk-influenced brand of noise. Here was a much more introspective, psychedelic, downright mellow band than I ever imagined the guy from Moped fronting. Sure, the record sported the occasional rave-up, such as “Threadbare” and the opening “Catch and Release”, but for the most part, it was dominated by slow, mellow, hazy tunes like “Casual Friday” and the Byrds-y, countryish “Steady on Threes”. It was a really good record, if not at all what I was expecting.
Honey in the Hive, on the other hand, is anything and everything I could have ever hoped for. Tobias and co/singer-songwriter Scott Jefferson have crafted a batch of songs that resonate with the intensity of instant classics. As far as comparisons go, the above-mentioned Big Star and Matthew Sweet are probably the best points of reference. The Bigger Lovers play power pop in the classic mold, with muscular guitars to the fore, backed by a tight-ass rhythm section, intelligent songwriting, and dreamy harmonies. Songs like “Emmanuelle” and “You’re in Love, Again” hearken back to the Bigger Lovers of their debut, all asway in hazy rhythms and swoony, sundrenched vocals. Some of the songs of this type from How I Learned to Stop Worrying gave off the impression that the band hadn’t quite found its collective feet yet, and were overshadowed by their more brash neighbors. However, on Honey in the Hive, the band has managed to integrate the upbeat and introspective sides of itself, the end result being that both sides are equally well represented by amazing songs.
And honestly, I can’t say that I’ve heard a record this year with more amazing songs per capita than this one. Knievel’s The Name Rings a Bell that Drowns Out Your Voice comes as close as any, but even that masterpiece has a few tunes that fade into the background. Every song on Honey in the Hive, from impossibly catchy rockers like “Ivy Grows” and “Bought Your Ghost” to languid, breezy dreamers like “Emmanuelle” and “Minivan Blues”, to the pure pop bliss-outs of “A Simple How Are You” and “Make Your Day”, asserts itself with equal fervor—and beware, because they’re all equally likely to get themselves lodged in your brain.
It should also be noted that while Tobias wrote some great songs while in Moped, he was not exactly what you’d call a “great singer”, sounding something like a slightly-more-in-tune J. Mascis than anything else. However, in the intervening years, he has managed to become one. Although his voice is still thin and slightly nasally (i.e. perfect for power pop!), it has wound up as the perfect vehicle for his beautiful songs of love gained, lost and pined over.
The Bigger Lovers have been a band with expectations hanging over their head from the get go, simply due to the pedigree of its members. On Honey in the Hive, they unequivocally blast those expectations out of the park with an album that will, without a doubt, end up on my, and many other critics’ year-end Top 10 lists. This record is like getting a big ol’ bear hug from a good friend who you haven’t seen in a few years - instantly comforting, gratifying, and guaranteed to put a smile on your face.