This will seem like a strange little story, so bare with me a moment. I have this very distinct memory of sitting in a literature survey in college discussing Lolita. I sat quietly (because I did a lot of that back then) listening to an argument between the professor and the usual voices of all that was righteous and good and proper argue about whether or not Nabokov’s work was deserving of the big “L” literature tag, or if it was merely a fetishist’s masturbatory dream and general insult to civil society and women in particular. I could see the anguish on the professor’s face as he struggled to toe the politically correct line while still trying to make the case that this book wasn’t just about a middle-aged man having sex with an underage girl. I could tell how much it pained him that great (arguably untouchable) writing was not in itself a refutation of any outwardly grotesque subject matter. I still remember clearly his words to the class, “I really want to win this argument”. High-brow literary references aside, this is where I stand with California Oranges’ Souvenirs: I really want to convince you, dear reader, to go buy this record. I want you to buy it not because of a larger contextualized discussion that insists it’s cool, but because it is a simple reminder of why music is fun.
Much like the memory of my long-ago English professor, Souvenirs reminds me of a specific time in my life, and it was a good time. Because Souvenirs echoes and builds upon those memories must be why I like it so much. But the music is excellent; it’s not just the personal connection the record has managed to make. While California Oranges have a clear lineage that touches such power pop luminaries as Material Issue, Velocity Girl, the Fastbacks, the Groovy Ghoulies, even the Go-Go’s, they are clearly making a bid for relevance beyond simple nostalgia.
Souvenirs is as infectious and hooky as anything to come out this year. The band’s ultimate criticism will be that it’s not doing anything trailblazing. Instead it’s giving us 12 songs in under 35 minutes, most songs hanging around the three-minute mark. But what’s so wrong with simply updating a given style (in the case of California Oranges, we’ll call it power pop just because it’s convenient) and doing it perfectly? Plenty of other bands do it. Death Cab for Cutie, Coldplay, and Nada Surf (may as well give me Goo-Goo Dolls, Semisonic, Grandaddy, and Everclear while we’re at it) may be stylistically different, but they’re obviously cut from the same sonic cloth and the reprisals for pillaging are minimal while the record sales are large. They’ve all taken a common indie rock sound and twisted it with their own musical and/or lyrical style, repeated it album to album, chewing at their own limbs, in order to present a sound that appears original while warming us with the comfort of the known. Frankly, I’ll take California Oranges’ headlong dash into overt displays of honeyed power pop over the calculations of the aforementioned bands. Don’t you just want to feel good sometimes? Listen without scratching your head? Have two desserts and not feel guilty? Drink PBR without tasting any irony? If there’s a message in Souvenirs (and there probably isn’t) it’s just to listen without consequence. This is not music to be intellectualized. It’s music to crank out of open car windows and dorm rooms, to blast while cleaning the apartment or folding laundry.
The snarkiest reviewers will go out of their way to explain why Souvenirs isn’t good, and those reasons won’t revolve around the music. Those reasons will revolve around attitude, around what’s hip, around the perception that something so simple and straightforward is automatically vapid or shallow. That’s just not the case. Admittedly, there’s nothing subtle about Souvenirs. The template is well-known and clearly defined: soaring boy/girl harmonies, rapid-fire licks of squeaky clean and buzz saw dirty guitar work, consistently up-tempo beats, and melodies that would make tone deaf kitten haters want to sing along. The lyrics? Mostly boy and girl argue, there’s a break up, someone comes back or won’t come back, the scene is cruel, you’re a tease, I’m a tease, etc. But honestly who cares? California Oranges could be singing about tree squirrels on Souvenirs and I’d be happily humming along to an ode to an oak tree.
Souvenirs is a blissful updating of a sound too easily forgotten. Don’t spend too much time thinking about it, just put it on and listen. Give California Oranges 35 minutes and they’ll give you 12 reasons to be happy that you bought this record.