On paper, it’s a recipe for disaster: a concept album encompassing South Dakota, Cheap Trick, and Ronnie Spector. But, fortunately, nobody bothered to tell Ed Masley, the driving force behind Pittsburgh’s the Breakup Society (and formerly of the Frampton Brothers, for those of you keeping score at home), that his idea for James at 35 read like a bad improv group suggestion. The trick to a coherent and enduring concept album/rock opera is to have a batch of songs that can stand alone as songs, not just have tunes that exist in service of the plot. And Masley, with his unabashed and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of ‘60s garage and ‘70s power pop, understands that such tunesmithery is the key to avoiding the pretentious morass that can be the concept album. With that hurdle leapt, James at 35 is nothing less than a joy to listen to.
I can’t say I fully grasp the album’s concept, but here’s a stab: James, the narrator, remembers that back in his high school days he wanted to be a rock star like Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander, but now he’s playing out the string living in Mitchell, South Dakota, writing letters to an old flame. Nothing actually happens now that I think about it, but like any good power pop album, it’s full of lusting over and regretting time spent lusting over pretty girls. Masley knows that an audience weaned on Big Star, the Raspberries, Cheap Trick, and early Replacements is expecting and he delivers the goods. Every damn song is a three-minute gem, all hooky guitars, ooh aahs, and handclaps. And tunes like “Summer of Joycelynn May” and the school-is-a-waste ode “Introduction to Girls” sound time warped straight outta 1973.
In fact, all the tunes do sound as if they’re from that era. Not only that, but if you’re feeling nitpicky, you might be inclined to notice that all the songs sound the same. Admittedly, it’s a claim that holds up more on the album’s first half, when things are going well in James’ life. But that said, the tunes boast such a shaggy-dog likeability (“I know state capitals from Maine to nearly Idaho”, Masley/James notes on “Introduction to Girls”, then gleefully nicks “Baby I Love You” on “The New Ronnie Spector”) that only the harshest critic would get hung up on the song’s sonic similarities.
Side B is a little more varied, but no less catchy. “She’s Using Words Like Hurt Again” could be 1965’s answer to Fountains of Wayne’s “She’s Got a Problem”; meanwhile, “Corn Palace” is colored by a vaguely alt-country vibe. And it’s the back half of the album where Masley lets fly his emotional gut punches. The heavy, fuzzed-out “I Don’t Give a Damn about the Sun” plays out as James’s Dark Night of the Soul, before spiraling into cacophony. Meanwhile, “Favorite Shorts” sums up the point of no return for a troubled relationship: “You don’t like my favorite shorts / I hate your friends”, delivered with a snot-nosed glee that would put Paul Westerberg to shame. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this line from album closer “He Wants His World Back (Baby)”, most because it hits a little too close to home for me: “He’s seen the way the girls are dressing on the cable and it’s messing with his sanity”. Granted, 35 is still off in the horizon for me, but Masley understands guys who listen to and make the kind of music he makes.
James at 35 hardly boasts a concrete resolution—James is still in Mitchell, South Dakota, at album’s end—but with this concept album, it’s the journey, not the destination. Thirtysomethings have a new voice for their generation in Ed Masley.